Lessons from the Carroll County Public Schools Fiasco
Education is often a top priority among local voters yet it is the least understood. Carroll County has become the best example of mistaken politics clashing with uninformed voters, and a mess has formed that cannot be fixed unless citizens understand the mistaken views that led to the expected fiscal collapse of the Carroll County Public Schools.
If you have not heard, the Carroll County Board of Education has been meeting to discuss the closures of up to 5 schools, including 2 of the county’s 8 high schools (North Carroll High School and Winters Mill High School) . The sudden and surprise proposal has taken many off guard, and the possible closure of the high schools has led to an angry backlash.
Blame has been thrown everywhere, bad proposal after bad proposal has been made, and no one seems to know what is going on.
Let us examine the situation to see how the Carroll County school system came into this mess.
The Early 2000s Numbers:
Enrollment data is hard to obtain, but a 2009 report (page 105) contains some valuable information. Let us break down the numbers to see how Carroll County once appeared:
Elementary Enrollment in 1998 was 12,800 and in 2003 was 12,338. This is a loss of 462.
Middle Enrollment in 1998 was 6,219 and in 2003 was 7,026. This is a gain of 807.
High Enrollment in 1998 was 7,942 and in 2003 was 9,208. This is a gain of 1,266.
Total Enrollment in 1998 was 27,051 and in 2003 was 28,613. This is a gain of 1,562.
What the Early 2000s Numbers Tell Us:
These numbers might suggest a future need for expanded middle and high school enrollment, but the Elementary enrollment numbers are dramatically lower. Something happened that suggests a major population shift where less students will enroll over time.
In 2000, Century High School opened. The same year, construction began on Winters Mill High School and it opened in Fall 2002 with a 1,200 student capacity. Normally, Winters Mill High School with its capacity would handle on its own the gain of 1,266 students following 2000 and be more than enough for the increase in enrollment.
By 2003, there were 7 high schools in Carroll County, which required 1,300 students to be enrolled per institution. Student enrollment at Westminster High School and North Carroll High Schools were over 1,500, which accommodates the necessary capacity.
The Mid 2000s Numbers:
Elementary Enrollment in 2003 was 12,338 and in 2007 was 11,712. This is a loss of 626.
Middle Enrollment in 2003 was 7,026 and in 2007 was 6,528. This is a loss of 498.
High Enrollment in 2003 was 9,208 and in 2007. This is a gain of 561.
Total Enrollment in 2003 was 28,613 and in 2007 was 28,009. This is a loss of 604.
What the Mid 2000s Numbers Tell Us:
Already, the middle school numbers are taking a hit. The total decline from 1998 to 2007 in elementary enrollment is 1,088, and the gain in middle enrollment is down to 309. High enrollment is up to 1,827.
The High enrollment increase of 561 would suggest some issues, but North Carroll High School was able to shift from 1,563 students to 1,762 students between 2003 and 2007, which is a capacity gain of 199 students.
People complained, politicians were pressured, and students no longer wanted to stay in portable facilities at schools. Manchester Valley High School was proposed and would have a capacity of 1,294 students. Already, the capacity would be roughly 700 more seats than needed if schools were at maximum capacity by 2003.
The new school cost the taxpayers of Carroll County $79 million. No funding was received from the state – funding only went to schools where there was a need. The 2007 figures at first glance suggested one, but that was a false need. The middle school enrollment numbers should have given people pause.
The Projected Enrollment Numbers:
Elementary Enrollment in 2008 was 11,674 and projected in 2013 to be 12,340. This is a gain of 666.
Middle Enrollment in 2008 was 6350 and projected in 2013 to be 6,070. This is a loss of 280.
High Enrollment in 2008 was 9,624 and projected in 2013 to be 8,520. This is a loss of 1104.
Total Enrollment in 2008 was 27,648 and projected in 2013 to be 26,940. This is a loss of 708.
What the Projected Enrollment Numbers Tell Us:
The wave finally hit high school enrollment. The excess capacity of 700 coming to Manchester Valley would soon be added to the new 1,100 loss of enrollment, representing 1,800 empty seats among 8 schools. The high schools in 2003 needing a capacity 1,300 students would drop to 1,065 in 2013. That is a 81.9% capacity from the previous average.
Even before the completion of Manchester Valley High School, students were able to be accommodated by the 7 other schools, and the use of portables would eventually disappear with the expected decrease in enrollment. In 2008, 7 high schools had to accommodate an average of 1,374 students. By 2013, they would have to accommodate a projected 1,21 students7, the approximate enrollment of both Century High School and Winters Mill High School.
There was some possible hope in the projected figures: elementary enrollment appears to be rebounding. But was it?
The Real 2013 Enrollment Numbers:
The real enrollment numbers can be found in a 2015 report (page 105).
Elementary Enrollment in 2008 was 11,674 and in 2013 was 11,370. This is a loss of 304.
Middle Enrollment in 2008 was 6350 and in 2013 was 6,055. This is a loss of 295.
High Enrollment in 2008 was 9,624 and in 2013 was 8,899. This is a loss of 725.
Total Enrollment in 2008 was 27,648 and in 2013 was 25,959. This is a loss of 1689.
The projections missed the mark by a significant margin:
Elementary gain of 666 became loss of 304, a loss of 970 over projections.
Middle loss of 280 became loss of 295, a loss of 15 over projections.
High loss of 1104 became loss of 725, a gain of 379 over projections.
Total loss of 708 became loss of 1689, a loss of 981 over projections.
In terms of total changes from 1998 to 2013, elementary school enrollment declined by 1,430, middle school enrollment declined by 164, high school enrollment increased by 957, and total enrollment declined by 1,092.
The addition of Century High School and Winters Mill High School allowed for the accommodation of the peak high school enrollment, yet still provided 2,400 more capacity than what existed in 1998. This left a capacity deficiency of roughly 1,450, which is a whole school or 200 less students per school for 7 high schools.
By 2013, many portable classrooms and other temporary structures were probably torn down, which would accommodate for a decrease in enrollment. However, this is before the addition of Manchester Valley High School.
What Does All of This Mean?
It means that the voters, the educators, and the parents need to take a closer look at the projected enrollment numbers whenever new school construction is discussed. Demographics and known population figures, such as the amount of middle schoolers, need to be part of the conversation before any high school is built.
In terms of financing, Carroll County Public Schools has received roughly $2 million less per year due to decreased enrollment, the teacher pension shift cost $5.7 million in 2015, and Manchester Valley will cost $12 million per year. The budget would not have had such a strain without the construction cost, and the school system would be in far better shape if it didn’t have to take on the pension shift. One was caused by the state while the other, the greater, was caused by local politicians and administrators.
A $79 million school built simply because a community doesn’t want the indignity of using portables for a few years is not a practical use of tax dollars. No one can go back in time and prevent Manchester Valley High School from being built, but we can all learn the cost of vanity from this situation.
If the community wants to act, they should hold responsible all of those involved in the prior poor decisions, including administrators, members of the Board of Education, and local politicians. The community can strip the power and authority from anyone who supported the school construction plan. The community can also scrutinize future plans and demand the removal of anyone caught making the same mistake.
Should the state bail out Carroll County? Should the taxpayers from other districts be forced to divert money to cover for a history of extremely bad decisions? Is such an approach fiscally responsible? If your child blew through their savings in a reckless manner, would he or she learn if you handed them the money without holding them accountable for their behavior?
Many politicians in Carroll County are looking to the state for a hand out because they want to have severely underpopulated schools in districts merely to appease voters. “Don’t take my school” has replaced “I want a brand new school,” but the original problem continues to exist.
I don’t want North Carroll High School or Winters Mill High School to shut down, but this situation was forced by a history of really bad decisions and an administration that refused to acknowledge the problem when it became obvious in 2009. Where was the Superintendent at the time? Where were the Board of Education members? Where were the County Commissioners? Why did no one say anything about the situation in 2010/2011 when new members came into office?
The politicians all want their voices heard in local papers and press releases, yet they were quiet for far too long. They are now pandering to a population that has no clue regarding what happened or what can be changed to prevent the school capacity problem from becoming worse. The politicians that stood idly by seem to hope that the citizens continue to be clueless.
The most important lesson to learn is that public schools are only here to educate students. They are not community status symbols, and children do not need the best or fanciest buildings to learn. It is better to have children sit in a portable than to completely destroy the school system.
Always dig deeper into the issues, check the numbers, and don’t just believe whatever a politician puts out there. Otherwise, you might lose your whole school in the process.
(Conflict of Interest Note: I served as Delegate Susan Krebs’s legislative aide between 2011 and 2014. While serving her office, I also staffed the Carroll County House Delegation and worked extensively on legislative issues connected to Carroll County Public School funding. All statements and opinions above are solely my own and do not reflect those held by any previous or current elected official.)