by KATE SHUNNEY
For the second time in two weeks, Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Boyd Michael got a taste of Hancock’s displeasure over the shift of the local agriculture teacher to Clear Spring.
But during last Thursday’s listening session at Hancock High School, Michael was swamped by a much larger and more vocal contingency of local residents on their own turf who pressed him for answers.
More than 100 people attended the May 3 session in Hancock High School’s auditorium. The meeting, which began at 6:30 p.m. and lasted for more than an hour, was focused almost exclusively on the hiring of Tom Mazzone to fill a position as agriculture teacher at Clear Spring.
Mazzone has been the force behind building a booming ag program in Hancock for high school students over the last four years. The county school system is now taking applications for the ag teacher position for Hancock.
Superintendent Michael started the listening session by saying he couldn’t talk about specific personnel issues. But Hancock students, parents and community members kept returning to the issue of Mazzone’s hiring at Clear Springs.
Several speakers chided Michael for not answering all of their questions about the hiring, and others even called the Superintendent a liar as he denied that Mazzone was forced to transfer to the larger high school to the east.
Despite the hostile reception, Michael took questions from more than a dozen people, including some students, about the ag program and the future of Hancock schools and a handful of other topics.
One gentleman started off the question period by asking Michael to look at several rows of students in Hancock’s agriculture program. He said the program is the biggest program at Hancock, attracting more than 50% of the school’s student body to ag-related classes.
“He wanted to stay in Hancock,” the man said of Mazzone. He asked why, if Clear Spring needed an ag teacher, the county school system didn’t hire a new person for there instead of taking Hancock’s teacher.
That was the same question repeated by many others during the session.
“We have every intention of continuing the ag program here,” Michael said. Equipment and materials related to the program will stay at Hancock, he said.
One mother asked what would happen if a qualified ag teacher wasn’t found for Hancock.
“We’ll do everything we can to get that teacher. I’m optimistic we’ll be able to keep the program,” the superintendent said.
Others continued to ask how and why Mazzone was hired for Clear Spring, instead of that opening being filled by another candidate.
Michael said the school had an opening and all employees of the school system can look at those positions and apply for them.
“Did I take the ag teacher and move him to Clear Spring? No.” said Michael.
Later, a senior student in Hancock’s agriculture program circled back to the same question.
“I did not send Mr. Mazzone to Clear Spring,” Michael said.
One parent accused Michael of holding the listening session when Mazzone and several FFA students were in Oklahoma for a special field trip. Michael said the timing of the session was about scheduling, not excluding anyone.
“Is there a five-year, ten-year master plan we get ahold of,” asked Hancock councilman Levi Little. Little said future plans for Hancock schools and changes in high school staffing seemed to be “pieces of a puzzle” that were fitting together.
Michael said school officials have to prepare a 10-year facilities plan and submit it to the state each summer.
“There’s nothing in the 10-year plan about Hancock closing,” he said.
Michael said he can’t guarantee what will happen if the school system gets into a budget crunch in the next two or three years, however.
“There is no plan to close Hancock. There’s no interest in closing Hancock,” he said.
Michael said in a few years, the school would have fewer than 110 students, making it 10 or 12 times smaller in student enrollment than North and South Hagerstown High Schools.
“I would love to see 500 houses built right here. We have the room for the students. We’ve kept the facilities up. We would not continue to invest in the facility if we had plans to close it,” Michael said.
One parent asked how much the county spends on the Barbara Ingram School for the Arts, a magnet school in downtown Hagerstown, in comparison to Hancock.
Michael said the county school system spends $14,700 per student for children enrolled in Hancock, roughly $9,000 for students in Barbara Ingram School, $8,000 for students at Clear Springs and $6,800 to $7,500 per student for those in the county’s larger high schools.
“We have a huge investment in Hancock,” he said.
A former Hancock High graduate said the enrollment locally could be bigger if the county offered more courses and special programs in Hancock, rather than cutting them.
Michael said he would “not be opposed” to a magnet program in Hancock if it were strong enough to attract students from other parts of Washington County.
Other questions posed to Michael included topics like school safety in buildings with open plans, such as those in Clear Spring and Hancock. Michael said the school system is creating a plan to close off walls, but said that project across the county will cost $84 million for 11 buildings.
A parent asked about notices that said lead had been detected in school water supplies. Michael said a new state law requires schools to report any level of lead in their water fountains or other drinking water sources, and to replace pipes to drop those levels. He said hand-washing sinks at Hancock High School had signs telling users not to drink from the faucets because of that law. A county facilities official said replacement parts for the water system are on order.
Another parent asked why concussion testing wasn’t done on schedule in the football preseason at Hancock. He said athletes were scheduled to have the testing, but parents had to pressure school officials to get the testing done. Michael said the company hired to perform the testing was having trouble finding personnel, and county school officials were aware of the delay.
Other questions related to school transportation services between Hancock and Hagerstown, the availability of middle school programs to students and the possibility of bringing Little Orleans students back to Hancock to boost enrollment.