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October 29, 2013

School closings, cuts may not be enough to close budget gap

Facilities study gives options to reduce Garrett County Public Schools deficit

MCHENRY — Even if the board of education chooses the most extreme option of the elementary school facility needs assessment and master plan study for Garrett County Public Schools, the savings wouldn’t be enough to close the $2.2 million budget gap, according to Paul Swanson, principal and co-founder of Facility Engineering Associates, P.C. of Fairfax, Va.

The most extreme option of the company’s study proposes closing two schools in the north end of the county as well as one school in the south end and includes reconfiguration of all grades in northern schools and adjusting school boundary lines.  

“If we were to take the most extreme option and still only realize an 83 percent gain towards the $2.2 million deficit that we anticipate, how would we come up with what’s left?” said Superintendent of Schools Janet Wilson during a presentation of the study Monday.

If the schools were reconfigured it would lead to reductions in teachers, according to Wilson.

“We have reduced our staff by 88 positions since 2009,” said Wilson. “We have lost 609 students; at a 1-to-20 ratio we probably should reduce the staff.”

Some extracurricular programs would also need to be eliminated to help close the deficit, according to Wilson.

The goals of the study are to close a predicted $2.2 million budget gap and remedy overcrowding issues at Broad Ford and Yough Glades elementary schools.

The board will accept the facilities study during a meeting Nov. 12, but won’t tell the Maryland State Department of Education what option it chooses until April 1. The study as well as other data points that may be gathered will be throughly reviewed, according to Wilson.

“With the $2.2 million deficit there is the possibility that our school system will look very different, and as a result of that, the planning that will have to go into preparation for the next changes are no small task,” said Wilson.

The advisory committees will be formed this year using an application process that will begin between Nov. 14 and 28 and committee members will be named Dec. 2.

“There may be other options as the advisory process unfolds,” said Wilson. “The advisory committees will meet with me and staff to really discuss the process. Not only will schools that are slated to close have an advisory committee but all schools will have an advisory committee because there is potential impact to all schools.”

Other options of the study include transferring fifth-graders at Broad Ford to Southern Middle School, moving eighth grade and re-routing buses. The cheapest option would be to adjust school boundaries to the tune of $50,000, according to Swanson.

“The good news is you have very good schools. Because you have good schools you have some options,” said Swanson. “I’ve been in school systems where a lot of the things we are talking about just wouldn’t be possible.”  

No public comments or questions were taken during the meeting Monday, but Swanson and Tom Larson, principal and co-founder of FEA, will return in early January to answer written questions that the advisory committees will submit in advance. In mid to late January, the advisory committees will present reports of schools that will potentially close to the board.

In February, the board will hear committee reports from schools that are remaining open and reports from the middle and high schools that may be affected by a reconfiguration, according to Wilson. Also in February, the board will hold community hearings and in early March, Wilson will make her recommendation. In late March, the board will act on Wilson’s recommendation.

Local, state and federal funding make up 51 percent, 42.2 percent and 6.6 percent of the budget, respectively, according to Wilson.

The amount of money that will be provided federally and locally is not yet known, according to Wilson.

“We cannot wait to know those limits because of the massive shift of whatever we decide to do will require,” said Wilson.

The school system’s estimated loss of $1.5 million for fiscal 2015 is due to the state’s wealth formula, which in part is based on enrollment. The wealth formula will be studied for adequacy and fairness in the fall of 2014 but isn’t slated for completion until 2016. The decline in enrollment will continue for a while, according to Swanson.

 The scope of the study includes the assessment of elements required by the Code of Maryland Regulations, which governs school closings should the board be forced to move in that direction.

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

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