About 40 people gathered at Sabillasville Elementary School on Tuesday evening for a “listening session” with three members of the county Board of Education, the latest installment in the community’s ongoing fight to save its school from closing.
The Frederick County Board of Education voted to close the school in November, citing steadily declining enrollment and a high maintenance cost for the building. But it reversed that decision four months later, acknowledging the community’s complaints that it hadn’t been been given ample time for input.
The board only committed to keeping Sabillasville open for the 2021-22 school year, leaving its long-term future uncertain.
“I realize the process has not been graceful at all,” board member Liz Barrett said at Tuesday’s hearing.
Throughout the evening, Sabillasville residents — many of whom have made their home in the quiet mountain community for decades — asked board members to communicate with them better this time than last.
They also pitched a slew of possible strategies to boost the school’s enrollment, and they gave impassioned testimony about what it would mean to them if it closed.
“A town loses its identity when it loses a school,” said Barbara Doney, a fifth-grade teacher at Sabillasville.
Many speakers echoed her, some getting up to address board members four or five times during the 90-minute session. Though the school building is old and only served 70 students last academic year, Sabillasville residents maintain that it’s the heart of their community.
“This is more than a school to this community,” one speaker said. “This is our community center.”
When the board reversed its decision to close the school, Barrett pitched the idea of open enrollment — which would allow families from other areas of the county to choose to send their children to Sabillasville. Her colleagues agreed, and the call for enrollment was put out countywide.
Only three families took advantage of it, board member David Bass said Tuesday, and the window has now closed for others.
But many speakers Tuesday said that number wasn’t a fair gauge for interest in the school. They asserted the open enrollment option wasn’t advertised enough and that parents were wary about the school’s uncertain future.
“Some parents weren’t willing to send their child to SES for one year without knowing what the next year would bring,” Doney said.
Transportation was another issue, Doney added: FCPS couldn’t commit to buses for kids looking to transfer into Sabillasville, which is located along Catoctin Mountain, along a remote stretch of Route 550 near the Pennsylvania border.
The school’s location brings its own set of concerns, said parent Morgan Hoke. If Sabillasville closed, its students would be redistricted to two elementary schools in Thurmont — a 15-minute drive down a windy, mountain road.
In heavy winter snows, Hoke said, she has to use an ATV to navigate out of her driveway and along the remote road where she lives in order to reach Route 550. She recently moved to the area specifically to send her kids to Sabillasville, she said, after hearing about its tight-knit community.
“If Sabillasville were to close, we would definitely think about moving,” Hoke said. “It would be heartbreaking.”
As it stands now, the community’s hopes are mostly resting on its ongoing effort to transition into a public charter school with a curriculum focused on agriculture and the environment.
Alisha Yocum, president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, has been spearheading that effort. She’s submitted an application to Superintendent Terry Alban, she said, and is currently working on revisions based on feedback she received.
The board is set to take a final vote on the charter application Sept. 8. Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting expressed broad support for the idea, though board members declined to comment on it or answer questions about the application.
Barrett said doing so would be a conflict of interest, since she and her colleagues will eventually have to judge the charter application on its merit and vote on whether to approve it.
“That conversation has to be separate from the conversation about the future of the school building,” she said.
While many attendees were confused by that distinction, they expressed gratitude to Barrett, Bass and board member Sue Johnson for listening to their concerns.
“I trust that this time, we’re gonna handle it differently,” said parent and Sabillasville resident Robert Koontz.