by Geoff Fox
The Washington County Public Schools (WCPS) Board of Education were given the Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee (FEAC) recommendation to close Hancock Middle-Senior High School and Cascade Elementary School last Tuesday evening during their business meeting and discuss what the committee had recommended.
There was also a period for public comments for people to address board members. Main Street Hancock’s Amy Gillespie and Town Councilman and creator of the Save Our School committee Tim Boyer both gave prepared statements.
Gillespie submitted letters and petitions to board members to read and also left a copy with them.
Gillespie said she was speaking for the people who had gathered outside the Washington County Public Schools building in support of Hancock schools, had made the bus ride a couple weeks ago, and “all of the people in town that working really hard to save the school.”
Gillespie said promises were made in 2018 about saving the school and keeping Hancock open.
“As a result of those promises, town leadership made some commitments and made some changes,” Gillespie said. “Some of those changes were bringing people like myself into Hancock to assist with systemic problems that needed to be corrected.”
The town recognized it needed to invest in growth for the future.
With her background in economics, Gillespie said all those efforts would be for naught should the school close. She told board officials about Harvest CEO Steve White wanting to double the size of their plant in Hancock.
In listening to the information in the FEAC reports, Boyer said he did not feel Hancock schools got a fair representation.
“We all know statistics can be used to manipulate data for a desired outcome and this was a fine example of that,” Boyer said.
He said there were eight COMAR points that were to be voted on separately followed by an overall review, but committee members decided to skip voting on each one and just went straight to voting to close Hancock High School.
He also pointed out a member of the committee said students in Hancock should go west into West Virginia for schooling.
“First, why would anyone even suggest kids go to an out of state school?” Boyer said. “Second, Allegany County is to the west of Washington County, not West Virginia.”
Boyer pointed out issues with the facilities committee the recommended closure, such as only 10 of the 14 members showing up for a vote and another member sleeping during a meeting.
Boyer noted the community support for the school has been “overwhelming” and that should be taken into consideration.
Boyer also questioned the costs and how only $1.9 million of a $300 million budget is spent on Hancock.
He likened that to only 62 cents spent on Hancock out of every $100 WCPS spends, leaving 99.4% of the budget to be spent on the other schools in Washington County.
“If this is just a battle between you and the county commissioners over money, stop using our students as pawns to get more money,” Boyer said.
FEAC recommends closure
Senior Project Manager and Planning Supervisor Chad Criswell, FEAC Co-Chairperson Kent Niedzelski, and FEAC member Lura Norris represented the FEAC.
On January 19, school board members asked the facilities committee to evaluate all county schools with projected enrollment of less than 60% of state rated capacity and to determine recommendations on future use of those schools.
Over a two-month period, the committee met four times virtually and reviewed five schools that met those criteria. Hancock Middle-Senior High School fit the criteria.
Committee members set several conditions for closing Hancock Middle-Senior High School, including: taking steps to limit or minimize transportation times for Hancock students; adding more transportation resources for students active in school activities/clubs/extra-curricular activities; and setting up programs and resources to help reduce mental and academic stress made worse by a school closure decision.
“The Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee has asked that I remind the public that these are just recommendations from the committee based on its review of the information contained and identified in this report and that the final review and decision of the school closure rests with the board of education,” Criswell said.
Board member Darrell Evans, who was on the bud ride earlier this month, asked the FEAC members which was the most prominent factor that led to the decision.
Niedzelski said it was academic opportunities, describing a “significant gulf” between Hancock and Clear Spring.
“That is the biggest reason why we felt it was most beneficial for students,” he said, noting with additional students at Clear Springs from Hancock those opportunities could also help those in Clear Spring.
Kevin Bokoum, the student member of the board, had a concern about the number of meetings.
Because it was such an important decision, Bokoum said he thought there should have been more meetings held.
He also questioned the way the committee looked at the impact the closing would have on the communities of Hancock and the Cascade area.
In the synopsis for Impact on Communities for Hancock, the committee said, “It is difficult for this Committee to ascertain the exact impact of the closure of this middle/high school. Numerous citizens wrote to the Committee, stating their belief that the closing of the school would be detrimental to the health of the Town’s economy. Citizens also spoke of their personal experiences, history, and love for the school.”
Bokoum told the committee members he would have liked to see a longer report on community impacts. The report itself is on page 73 of a 561-page document.
“I really feel this is a major part of this whole decision,” Bokoum said of the community impact.
He said Town Manager Joe Gilbert’s presentation should have been included in the committee’s community impact report.
When given the opportunity to respond, Niedzelski said he wasn’t an economist or knowledgeable in making in those determinations, nor was anyone else on the committee.
Bokoum also asked if the committee looked at possible redistricting with the emphasis on moving Hancock’s district further east.
Criswell said the committee considered closing Clear Spring and moving those students to Hancock. They also looked at how much development it would take fill Hancock without redistricting, as well as moving some boundaries.
Bokoum said he had the opportunity to come to Hancock Middle-Senior High School to talk to staff and students and get their reaction to transferring to Clear Spring and participating in other activities.
Board member Michael Guessford, who also heads up the nutrition program site in Hancock, asked what the academic opportunities were missing from Hancock and what research the committee had done in Hancock. He said that would be important to gauge what the community and students thought was missing.
Norris said the committee members did not have conversations outside the meetings with community members.
Niedzelski said it wouldn’t have been appropriate for the committee to solicit the information themselves.
Norris said when looking at the information given to the FEAC, special programming for the middle and high school was what the committee took into consideration.
Guessford asked if there was any consideration into bringing any new programs that could be moved into Hancock or Cascade to enhance enrollment to those two schools.
Criswell said they did not consider that option and only went through the existing programs at the schools, educational programs provided, and student and staff ratios.
He did note there had been discussions to look at increasing opportunities at those schools.
Board member April Zentmeyer asked if a K-12 school could be created at Hancock and if so, how would that happen.
Norris said with the amount of classrooms required for the elementary school, the lack of space, even with portables couldn’t accommodate the consolidating of the two schools.
Board Vice President Stan Stouffer said he visited Hancock Middle-Senior High School, spending about three hours at the school.
Board President Melissa Williams questioned if the need exists for resources for autistic and special needs students.
Michael said while those needs are at some schools, they aren’t at all schools in Washington County.
He said students in the Summit Program from Hancock and Clear Spring would go to another school.
Williams addressed the fact that some members have been abused on social media, physical threats made against them, and one being berated by a county official for how they voted.
The entire 561-page FEAC report is available online at http://wcpsmd.com/facilities-planning-development/facilities-and-enrollment-advisory-committee-feac.