WORTON — While the Kent County Board of Education continues moving forward with a plan to close two elementary schools, opposition at a public hearing Monday night on the proposal was most vocal from members of the Millington community.
The plan to consolidate the district’s five elementary schools to three has effectively been in the works for two years now. Facing a $2.2 million revenue shortfall next year, the board is looking to close Millington and Worton elementary schools while maintaining Garnet Elementary School in Chestertown, Rock Hall Elementary School and Galena Elementary School.
Community leaders from Millington have opposed the plan since it was first announced more than a year ago, saying it will cause irrevocable harm to the town’s economic development potential.
School consolidation has its supporters, as well. Among them Monday evening were a band of parents who initially opposed consolidation, but now agree with it as a means to maintain educational programming in the cash-strapped school district.
Superintendent Karen Couch opened the public hearing in the auditorium of Kent County High School in Worton by going through her recommended consolidation plan to close the two elementary schools. She said doing so would help shrink next year’s deficit to about $330,000.
Couch’s presentation explained how state and local funding is tied to student enrollment. She said the district expects to continue losing students as the older population grows and the family-age population shrinks.
“The loss of students and declining enrollment has been going on for quite some time, so we don’t expect that really to change,” Couch said.
Couch highlighted expected benefits of consolidation: teachers will be forced switch grades less frequently and underutilized buildings will become eligible for state capital improvement funding. She said the remaining elementary schools have gyms and science labs, both of which Millington and Worton elementary schools lack.
The first of the evening’s 10 speakers and the leadoff for those opposed to closing Millington Elementary was Ed Robinson, formerly a Millington mayor and a Kent County administrator. He said closing the two schools still leaves the district with a $330,000 shortfall in the next fiscal year.
“Ladies and gentlemen that’s not solving the problem. I’m sorry,” he told Board of Education members.
The Millington group has proposed a consolidation plan that would see Worton Elementary and Kent County Middle School in Chestertown close. Students in seventh and eighth grade would go to the high school and sixth-graders will move to the remaining elementary schools.
Couch estimates her plan to close Millington and Worton elementary schools will save the district about $1.1 million. She tallied the savings from the alternate plan proposed by the Millington group at $632,000.
The Millington speakers were concerned about how losing a school could affect development they say is coming to the town. They pointed to the purchase in January by developer Richardson Properties Corp. of more than 200 acres outside town.
Mark Hansen, lay pastor of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Massey, read from a statement provided by Richardson.
“The key here is they argue, ‘The potential closure of the Millington Elementary School needs to be placed on hold until it can be analyzed in relation to the growth and revitalization plan for the future of Millington,’” Hansen said, reading from Richardson’s statement.
Millington Councilwoman Shelly Holland spoke about how funding formulas do not adequately support schools in smaller counties. She said schools should not be forced to close to due such formulas.
“Where there are students needing education, there should be education for them to have, equal and equitable to the rest of the state,” she said.
Holland said closing schools leaves communities with empty buildings. She said young families will not move into the area.
“Closing schools does not relieve budgetary issues,” she said.
Jim Luff spoke on behalf of the Kent County Economic Development Commission, saying consolidation appeared to be the only feasible option for the district’s budgetary issues. He said people and businesses looking to locate to a new county ask about the quality of the school district, not how many buildings it has or where they are located.
“We’ve been very impressed with the way the quality of schools have been coming up in the last three years,” Luff said.
Parents Rebecca Heriz-Smith and Francoise Sullivan, organizers of the Support Our Schools group lobbying for increased education spending, spoke in favor of consolidation because it means educational programming like art and music can be maintained.
Heriz-Smith said she will miss being able to walk her children to Millington Elementary, which is around the corner from her house. She said the Board of Education is not going to make everybody happy.
“So you look at the bigger picture of what’s going to benefit the county overall. I have to be on board with consolidation, as much as it hurts me to say it. I support the decision that you guys have to make and I think that that’s what’s going to benefit our kids in the end,” Heriz-Smith said.
Sullivan said she is thrilled with the quality of education her daughter is receiving. She said losing programming would be more detrimental than losing a school that could potentially be reopened.
Both said they hope economic development comes to Millington.
“I want Millington (Elementary) to open back up, so I’m going to push you guys to do that when we get to that point,” Heriz-Smith told board members.
One parent raised concerns about the district’s most intense Individual Education Program for special needs students moving from Worton Elementary. He wanted to know how the students will be transitioned to a new school when they strive on the stability and routine they currently have and whether their education would remain a priority or if they would be “shoved into a corner.”
“There are very few children that need these services, but these services for these children are absolutely critical,” he said.
Couch’s consolidation report states that transitional IEPs will be developed for students who will be changing schools and require special services.
Millington’s current mayor, C.J. Morales, raised questions about the school district’s budget, notably the fund balance that grew to $2.9 million in the last fiscal year.
In the evening’s only back-and-forth, Couch said the fund balance is being spent down, leaving the district with, at best, a $500,000 safety net in the next fiscal year for unforeseen expenses that may arise. She likened it to paying the monthly mortgage from a savings account.
“By the end of next year, it’s gone,” Couch said of the fund balance. “It’s being used right now to fund what we have in place, to keep what we have in place right now. We’re using it to fund recurring costs that are going to have to be funded a different way.”
Millington Councilman Kevin Hemstock and business owner and former mayor Dennis Hager spoke against closing the school in their town. They said if it happens, community members will explore opening a public charter school.
In Maryland, public charter schools are under the purview of the local board of education and receive public funding.
“And are you prepared to consider and approve a charter school to fill the educational void in Kent after your school-closing binge? Because when you vote to close our school, our fight for an educational facility in Millington is not done. Are you prepared politically and financially for that?” Hemstock said.
Hager said he has opposed charter schools in the past, but if the Board of Education moves forward with consolidation, his opinion will change.
“I have a history throughout my life of taking action on things I believe in,” he said.
Ultimately, Hemstock said there was a lack of creative thinking in addressing the district’s financial issues, while Hager accused the Board of Education to succumbing to groupthink.
“After 40 years of watching the way things happen, I have watched the hospital ... in Chestertown become a shadow of its former self, in no small part because of groupthink. That could very easily happen to this school system,” Hager said.
The next chance to address the Board of Education will be during its monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 13. That meeting will be held at the district’s central office in Rock Hall.
A special meeting at which the school board is expected to vote on Couch’s recommended consolidation plan is set for 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 20, also at the central office.