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Residents support Emmitsburg Elementary at county hearing

(4/5) Parents, students, and staff from Emmitsburg Elementary School put on their blue school T-shirts for the public hearing on school construction projects on March 27. Approximately 25 EES supporters were among hundreds who came to Frederick’s Weinberg Center for the Arts to show their colors and air their concerns before four members of the Frederick County Commissioners. Commissioners Jan Gardner, John L. Thompson, Kai Hagen, and Charles Jenkins attended the meeting, which was moved to the Weinberg Center from Winchester Hall because of renovations at the county building. Citizen turnout at last year’s meetings was so large that the hearing room at Winchester Hall could not accommodate them all, said a speaker from Linganore High School. Commissioner David Gray was out of the county inspecting waste-to-energy plants.

Before public comment began, Gardner and County Finance Division Director John Kroll addressed the issue of financing for pending school construction projects. The recommended budget for fiscal year 2008 totals over $882 million, of which 42 percent is allotted to the Board of Education. The cost of school construction, said Gardner, is increasing “at a significant pace.” She and other commissioners have proposed a $1 increase in the county’s current $5 recordation tax, which is paid on the sale and transfer of homes. The increase would be dedicated to school construction; about half would pay for replacement of Linganore High School. With the tax increase, Linganore will be completed in 2009, while Emmitsburg and three other elementary school additions will be finished in 2011. Without the tax increase, Kroll emphasized, completion of Linganore High will be pushed to 2011 and the EES addition bumped to 2013. In the timetable set in the previous capital improvement program, the EES addition was to be completed in 2009.

Emmitsburg speakers were united in their position that construction of the proposed addition to EES should take place on the earlier schedule. Town Commissioners Chris Staiger and Glenn Blanchard were first to comment on the local school. Each urged the commissioners to stick with the earlier date for the project. Blanchard added his perspective as both a teacher and the parent of a special-needs child who “will need the space for one-on-one” interaction with instructors in order to succeed in school.

EES third-grade teacher Michael Hakkarinen, parent of two students at the school, also brought a dual viewpoint in his remarks. He spoke of the unpredictable nature of the HVAC system, which was built to accommodate an open-classroom design in the 1970s. Hakkarinen highlighted the “fairly outdated” technology which teachers must supplement with their own equipment in order to provide a “first-class education” for their students. “None of us,” he stressed, “push back test dates or assessments…conferences or IEP meetings,” yet improvements to the building and instructional upgrades have already been pushed back several times.

Hakkarinen’s son, Jaik, a first-grader, offered a kids-eye view of the building’s shortcomings. The cafeteria, he said, “is always loud and full of people…[and] the library is loud just like the cafeteria….Our school has over 300 kids, but we only have four bathrooms, two for the boys and two for the girls.” He hopes the building is fixed before he finishes attending there.

Building security and student safety were primary concerns for parents Kate Zentz, Sharon Brent, and Tina Ridenour. Visitors to the school can walk directly into the cafeteria, which contains two of the four student bathrooms, and leads to the music and art classrooms, the gym, and other classroom areas. Ridenour’s son is a fourth-grade student. His classroom is a portable, and he will be in a portable again for fifth grade. The ramp into the main building is not covered and is slippery when wet. Ridenour noted that she attended the school herself, and that “it basically hasn’t changed in 30 years.”

The commissioners will consider public comment from the March 27 hearing at its meeting at Winchester Hall on the morning of Monday, April 9. The public hearing on the proposed recordation tax increase is scheduled for April 24, and Gardner advised that those who support it should attend the meeting, because there is opposition to it from the real estate industry. The CIP will next be considered on May 15, with a meeting to adopt the CIP slated for June 5.

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