At Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting, members were presented a full report, prepared by Frederick County Public Schools staff, on the state of Sabillasville Elementary School and what the impact would be if the school were closed.
The board directed FCPS staff in January to generate the report after they were alerted to low enrollment numbers at the school.
Sabillasville Elementary currently has 78 students enrolled. Its capacity is 160. Besides the county’s public charter schools, Sabilasville Elementary is the only school with under 100 students.
According to the report published by FCPS staff, enrollment began dropping steadily in 1998 after the closing of Fort Ritchie, a former military installation that was about 5 miles from the school.
Based on enrollment projections, by the 2029-2030 school year, Sabillasville Elementary is expected to have 53 students enrolled, which would place its state-rated capacity at 46 percent.
According to FCPS, no new developments are planned in the attendance area, and therefore no new families or new children to attend the school.
At public meetings, many from the community had pointed out that enrollment could increase if more military families move into the area to work at Camp David.
School Superintendent Terry Alban said during the presentation of the report Wednesday night that FCPS had contacted Camp David to ask about future staffing.
“They would not give us specific information, but we know at this point there really isn’t any indication that the amount of staff there would increase,” Alban said.
There is also the issue of the age and functionality of the school building.
Sabillasville Elementary opened in 1964 and has not undergone any major renovations since. Its Facilities Condition Index rating is critical.
“If all of those systems [HVAC, plumbing, etc.] were to go down today, it would cost us $4.2 million to replace them,” Alban said.
Sabillasville Elementary is one of the most inefficient buildings in the school system, according to the report, and poses the third-highest maintenance cost.
More specifically, the maintenance cost per student at Sabillasville Elementary is the highest in FCPS. The average cost per student system-wide is $184, while at Sabillasville Elementary the cost per student is $607.
Other factors examined in the report included the impact on transportation if the school were to close, functioning of educational programs, and more financial considerations.
Alban said that if students were relocated to Thurmont Primary School and Thurmont Elementary School, bus ride times would increase by a maximum of 13 minutes and all routes would still be within policy time limits of how long students can be on buses.
Alban has continually said over the past month that one of the biggest concerns she has with keeping the school open is the ability to deliver high-quality and equitable instructional programming to students.
If enrollment continued to decline as projected, the number of staff at the school would have to decrease in order to comply with state and federal mandates.
“If you have three teachers and six grades that you’re trying to cover ... it’s going to get very, very challenging to figure out how to put multiple grades in one class and really deliver all of the curriculum,” Alban said. “And that’s when staff has to begin to say equity ... are we able to provide [those students] with the same instructional program as students in other schools?”
Now that Sabillasville Elementary is to remain open for the next school year, the number of classroom teachers is expected to decrease from four to three. This is due to projected enrollment and how that fits in the current FCPS staffing formula.
Three teachers would mean an entire school of multi-grade classrooms.
Heather Sparkman, a parent of a student at Sabillasville Elementary, said she is not concerned about having one less teacher in the school.
“Not if you met our teachers. I have full faith that they can do that,” Sparkman said.
Kelsey Norris, another parent, agreed.
“I think that they’re probably more so happy now that they have the chance to prove that we are capable of this and we will still be a five-star school,” Norris said.
Sabillasville Elementary received a five-star rating on its 2019 Maryland school report card. Scores are given to every single public school in the state based on factors such as achievement on state tests, graduation rates and the results of surveys taken by students and teachers.
Many Sabillasville community members had brought up the school’s high rating at public meetings and referenced the fact that students from Sabillasville Elementary continue to perform well academically because of its small size.
“Why anyone in their right mind ... would consider taking away a pristine jewel that is not failing in the metrics that you and the state provide is beyond me,” Marty Burns, a Thurmont town commissioner, told the board during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting.
Barbara Doney, a teacher at Sabillasville Elementary, shared similar thoughts and suggested the board use Sabillasville Elementary as a model for success to be used at larger schools.
Sabillasvile Elementary is not the only five-star school in the county, though, and Alban said its high rating cannot be correlated to its small size.
“We had eight elementary schools that got five-star ratings and their attendance varies from 78 at Sabillasville [Elementary] to 974 at Centerville Elementary, and we have everything in between,” Alban said. “So the five-star rating, at this point, I don’t think we can attribute to the size of the school.”
After the meeting Wednesday night, Alban said she felt the board took the right direction with extending discussion but is concerned when they will hit the point of too small.
“At what point am I looking at two teachers to teach six grades. The teachers might be willing to do that, but we can’t support that with curriculum and resources,” Alban said.
For now, though, one more school year is in the books.
“Next year it will be kind of like it’s been this year, and my hope is that none of those systems fail,” Alban said. “Right now, it’s still two grades in a classroom, which is reasonable and doable for the teachers. So we can survive another year.”