Washington County school board cites community support, vitality in pulling plug on Hancock school closure proposal

by Geoff Fox

After months of sending emails, posting signs in yards and businesses, going to meetings, and social media campaigns, Hancock families’ wait to find out the fate of the town’s high school is over.

Board member Michael Guessford.

During the June 1 Washington County Public Schools’ business meeting, school board member Mike Guessford made a motion to vote for the future of Hancock High School and Cascade Elementary. Darrell Evans seconded his motion.

And with a vote of 6-1, both schools were saved from closure as board members opted to stop consideration of any plan to close or consolidate them with other facilities.

“I move to stop consideration of the superintendent’s report regarding schools with under 60% state rated capacity,” Guessford said. Evans seconded the motion.

Board President Melissa Williams was the lone vote against the motion. Student Representative Kevin Bokoum also voted against ending the discussion about the low-enrollment schools.

The vote came when Williams asked about discussion about Superintendent Boyd Michael’s suggestion regarding schools operating at less than 60% capacity. Guessford made his motion at that time.

Evans said he did believe Michael was making his recommendation in the interest of the kids.

“That is your job to put difficult decisions in front of us,” he said.

However, Evans disagreed with possible closure of both Hancock High School and Cascade. He said Washington County Public Schools got it backwards.

Board member Darrell Evans.

“Judging by the public comment, they still want the schools open, that’s very obvious,” Evans said.

Outside of the two districts being considered, there was no advocating for the closures, he added.

Evans told his fellow board members he thought they should take into consideration the general public wanted the schools open and if parents were upset about the education at each school, “we would have heard about it long ago.”

He also noted the community impact closing the school would have.

“I hope you understand, Dr. Michael, that we do appreciate you taking this time to do this. I do think that your heart was in the right place. I, however, will respectfully say I disagree with recommendations,” Evans said.

Board Member Linda Murray said the pandemic and the stress it has caused to many people was the reason she could not support the superintendent’s recommendation.

Guessford said the board had received hundreds of emails, held public hearings and listened to parents, students, business owners, and community leaders. There have also been opportunities during public comments during meetings.

“I have, and will always believe, we are elected to represent the constituents that elect us. I am here to serve on their behalf. I am their voice,” he said. “When so many voices speak for or against an item, I must listen to that voice.”

He added it’s time to move on so teachers concerned about their jobs can make decisions for their families and students who are graduating can find out how their school year would end.

The board’s vote took place the day that county high schools held their commencement ceremonies.

Board Member Pieter Bickford said he went into the process concerned about the shrinking numbers at Hancock and Cascade as well as images of other schools in the county that have been closed.

After listening to Michael’s recommendation and thinking carefully on combining Hancock and Clear Spring under a new name and new mascot, Bickford said he heard about renewed economic growth plan in the  Hancock region.

State officials have told him there is interest in companies moving to the Hancock area.

“While I don’t believe that we’re on the cusp of a massive population explosion in Hancock, I do know to close the school now will harm the community and possibly slow down that growth,” he said.

Bickford noted the community response to save the school and how, in the recommendation, there was a plan to maintain the building.  To him, it would still be an abandoned building.

Bickford said he’s gotten to know members of Hancock’s Save Our School committee and suggested they now change the name to Improve Our School to keep the momentum going.

Board Member Dr. April Zentmeyer said looking at enrollment trends, she couldn’t help but look at projections.

Board member Dr. Zentmeyer.

She said both Hancock and Cascade are the “last bastions of rural life” and being sought by those looking to get away from city life.

She also noted the travel between Hancock and Clear Spring as part of why she was voting to keep Hancock open.

The current cost of gas and lack of transportation to games and co- and extracurricular at Clear Spring would keep Hancock parents from going.

One of the greatest discoveries during the pandemic had been virtual learning and with the county’s technological investment there is no reason a high school student should be denied an opportunity. She also noted how a satellite able program that could be used to serve those students and those in the western part of the county.

Board Vice President Stan Stouffer said he could think of reasons to support closing the schools and reasons to keep them open.

He didn’t elaborate due to keeping the time short because some board members had graduations to attend.

Williams, the only vote in favor of continuing the conversation about closing both Hancock and Cascade, said the process has not been about finances but about the opportunities for students.

She said voting against Michael’s suggestion would do nothing to address shortcomings at the schools in the recommendation and give the board “much more” work to do.

Also, rejecting the superintendent’s recommendation would not make the shortcomings go away and could make them harder to overcome, Williams added.

Michael did not speak during the vote or discussion.