Town officials, community brace as county school system weighs Hancock enrollment, schools’ futures

by Geoff Fox

County school officials are looking at the future of school operations in Hancock due to costs in running both Hancock Elementary and Hancock Middle-Senior High School.

During their January 19 meeting, WCPS Board of Education members instructed the Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee to look carefully at schools in the county that operate at 60% or less in terms of capacity, and what actions the school system should consider about their operations.

A report about their findings is expected by April 20.

Superintendent Dr. Boyd Michael said it’s unfortunate school officials need to be constantly reviewing their efficiencies, course offerings, how resources are taken care of, among other things.

Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Prouix said the board should expect recommendations around April 20 for approval and disposition.

Several guidelines will be looked at by the committee, he added.

According to school board documents, the Board of Education is “requesting that the Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee (FEAC) conduct a review of specific school facilities to develop recommendations about their continued operation and the best utilization of all Washington County Public Schools’ facilities.”

“Any recommendation for the closure of a school is to include a review of the impact to the school(s) that would most likely receive the students from that closed facility,” school officials told the committee.

In their charge to the committee, officials said, “The current trend of declining enrollment at several school facilities necessitates a review of their utilization in order to provide the best educational opportunities in the most cost effective way possible.

“The urgency of this review is precipitated by the limited operating and capital funding that appears to be available to the school system in the near and long-term future,” officials said.

In 2019, the county’s Educational Facilities Master Plan did not mention either of Hancock’s schools as being sites for major improvements or consolidation. That Master Plan is meant to be a guide for five years of facility operations for the Washington County school system, good for planning school operations through 2024.

Recent investments in Hancock

Since 2017, WCPS has spent over $3 million in upgrades and safety improvements at both Hancock Middle-Senior High School and Hancock Elementary.

In 2017, the school system spent $2.6 million in replacing the HVAC system at Hancock Middle-School.

The system replaced equipment from an addition to the school in 1968 and some of the original construction in 1956.

That same year, WCPS spent just over $94,000 in improvements to Hancock Elementary School.

Those improvements added walls to improve student safety, define hallways, and reduce noise. This came after a town meeting when then-Councilman Levi Little addressed then-Superintendent Clayton Wilcox regarding student safety and overall appearance of the school.

Finally, in 2019, WCPS spent $457,000 to redo the main entrance to Hancock Middle-Senior High School, making the entrance to the school safer and moving the school’s main office across the hall.

Town officials prep for fight

Hancock Town Manager Joe Gilbert said he recently met with Michael and Prouix, approaching the meeting with different points noting the loss of jobs in Hancock, moves toward economic growth and the costs of losing a high school when it comes to economic development and the community.

Gilbert said when people are coming to the town to work and live, they look for a school. Not having a school in a small community would make Hancock a less attractive place to settle.

He said he has a future meeting with WCPS’ facilities manager.

In his presentation to town officials during the February 10 town meeting, Gilbert showed a number of slides with projects and avenues the town is following to attract people to Hancock for jobs and relocation.

“It’s the underlying economic conditions that caused enrollment to drop,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said the town is working to change those conditions right now, so by the time WCPS gets around to closing the schools, those underlying conditions will be different.

Some of the projects that are leading for growth include the Orchard Business Park north of town that was recently annexed into the town’s corporate limits, and the infrastructure project that has just begun.

On the northwest end of Pennsylvania Avenue, there is a potential 64 acres that would be for housing. Those 64 acres, which are contiguous to the Warfordsburg Road area, is also part of the Orchard Business Park.

Gilbert told town officials Lanco Pennland has a future use for the land between the cheese factory and Warfordsburg Road.

Gilbert said if the cheese factory hooks on to the town’s wastewater system, Lanco won’t need the field.

He said the intention is to build 10 to 15 single family homes on that lot, which could bring that many families to town.

Hancock Elementary could absorb new students with no new hires in staff, Gilbert said.

One thing the school district is citing for considering the closure of the Hancock schools is the cost per student to run the facilities.

Gilbert said he was told the schools are the most expensive for WCPS to keep open.

It costs the county $20,000 per student to send a student to one of the Hancock schools, which is higher than any other school in the district, he said.

School officials told him it was “very expensive” per student to run programs for things like football and other sports, band, and theater.

Gilbert said he was told the county system was considering two options when it comes to Hancock.

The first would see the closure of the Hancock Elementary building, and moving the students across the street to the high school building.

Gilbert said this would require some work be done to that building to accommodate the younger students.

Option two would see Hancock High School close and those students would be moved to Clear Spring High School. At the same time, the elementary students would move into the high school building.

The 43-year old elementary school building is one of the lowest scoring elementary schools in terms of 2020 facilities assessment  –ranking at number 24. Only Hickory Elementary, which is a year older, was lower.

On the flip side, the 54-year old Hancock Middle-Senior High School building is ranked fifth out of 10 high schools in the same type of classifications. Clear Spring High School is ranked tenth.

Should the elementary students move across the school, Gilbert said it wasn’t cost efficient to rehab the current elementary building.

“Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just saying what I was told what was behind their decision-making process that’s why they considered closing Hancock High School,” Gilbert said.

He added that he’s going to make the same argument — that the Hancock of today is not the Hancock of tomorrow — to the Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee. That committee will hold a public meeting on Thursday, February 18 at 6:30 p.m. remotely by Zoom. An agenda and link to that meeting is available here.

Town officials agreed to spend up to $1,000 to show support for the school with signs and other supportive materials.

“We need to do anything we can to try to keep our kids here in Hancock and Panther Pride going,” Councilman Tim Boyer said.

Kate Shunney contributed to this story.