Cumberland Times-News

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October 5, 2013

Sen. Edwards: Four more Garrett County schools face closure

OAKLAND — If Gov. Martin O’Malley doesn’t provide emergency action to help alleviate the dire financial situation of the Garrett County Public School System, it could mean that the process for school closures could begin in the fall, according to a letter from Sen. George Edwards.

Edwards wrote to O’Malley requesting him to put in an administration bill, support one that Edwards puts in or request through the budget process to hold counties harmless from losing any money until the wealth formula is complete. The wealth formula will be looked at in the fall of 2014 and won’t be included until 2016.

“Because of past reductions, the Garrett County Board of Education has closed three schools over as many years and if the projected decrease in funding holds true, the Garrett County School Board is looking at closing four more schools, which would mean almost half of the schools in the county would close over a four-year period,” writes Edwards. “The school closures will be a direct result of the necessity to reduce the work force and continue program elimination.”

Dennett Road and Kitzmiller elementary schools closed last year as a cost-cutting measure and Bloomington Elementary was closed in 2011.  

Edwards urges O’Malley to respond in a timely manner because the board will make staffing and closure decisions soon.

“GCPS does not have time to wait for the results of the wealth formula; waiting will irreparably impact the future of Mountain Maryland’s children and Garrett County,” writes Edwards.

 If reliable and sustainable streams of revenue cannot be identified and committed in a timely manner for fiscal 2015 and beyond, the school system is required by state code to begin the advisory process to determine if school closures, consolidation and redistricting are necessary, according to a board of education letter that was posted online in May.

“I think it is incumbent upon us that if the state continues with the wealth formula as is, which is a possibility, that we have contingency plans in place,” said Superintendent of Schools Janet Wilson, during a meeting Monday with the county commission.

The school board will obtain a facility study and the results will be given to the advisory committees. All elementary schools will have an advisory committee and likely middle schools will be included as well, according to Wilson, who assisted Edwards with the letter.

“I will be forming advisories this month hoping not to have to use them because I’m really very hopeful that the energy we are creating down state might come together and make our case for us that we need to be held harmless,” said Wilson. “I don’t think the letter is in position just to ask for hold harmless for Garrett; it’s asking for hold harmless for the entire state, any jurisdiction that would be losing money as a result of the wealth formula.”

The school system is facing a potential $2.2 million loss in state funding for fiscal 2015 because of declining enrollment and a perception of increasing wealth. The county has lost $4.5 million in state funding since 2009, not including the loss for fiscal 2015, according to Edwards.

“Delegate (Wendell) Beitzel and myself have received support from the legislature to not entirely hold harmless some counties, but to agree to cut the losses for certain counties, and even with those measures Garrett County Public Schools has lost 18.5 percent of its state funding,” writes Edwards.

Allegany County, as well as other counties, has seen decreases and will continue to see decreases, according to Edwards. In addition to school closures, Garrett County has seen cuts to advanced and intervention programs and other curriculum offerings.

“If the next funding cut stands, the Garrett County School Board will have to let approximately 60 additional employees go, resulting in the closure of four schools and a complete reconfiguration of the school system in terms of grades being served in the remaining buildings,” writes Edwards.

Under the existing wealth formula, the county is ranked as the fifth wealthiest county in the state. In contrast, the county is ranked in the top 10 and, in some cases, the top five in most poverty indicators.

“There is no way in God’s green Earth that Garrett County is the fifth wealthiest county in the state of Maryland (I don’t care how it’s calculated),” writes Edwards. “Nearly half of all Garrett County public school students are on free and reduced meals.”

The wealth formula also impacts school construction funding and the county had to delay the design phase for remodeling of Southern Middle because the 50/50 match couldn’t be met, according to Edwards.

County Commissioner Jim Raley urged citizens to write letters to O’Malley and State Superintendent of Schools Lillian Lowery.

“Make your voice heard — you have made your voice heard in this room just by your presence,” said Raley to the standing-room-only crowd during the meeting Monday. “Make your voice heard at the state level so we can try and get through this downturn.”

The board will hold a work session from 5 to 6 p.m. and a business meeting at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday at the central office at 40 S. Second St.

Contact Elaine Blaisdell at eblaisdell@times-news.com.

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