Sabillasville Elementary School will close at the end of the 2020-2021 school year after serving as a small-town public school and the center of the community for 56 years.
The Frederick County Board of Education voted 5-1 to close the school at its meeting on Monday. Board member Rae Gallagher opposed the motion, and board member Liz Barrett was absent from the meeting. The motion received support from the student member.
The school’s closure as a Frederick County Public School does not mean it will cease to exist, however. Instead, the closure now means that a new door may open.
The discussion surrounding the closure of the school began in the early months of 2020, when board members were alerted to its dwindling enrollment numbers and the challenges its small size posed to maintaining equitable educational standards across the county.
Based on the most recent data, the school currently has 70 enrolled students. According to FCPS 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.
The age and cost of maintaining the building have also been a concern. Its Facilities Condition Index rating is critical, and it is one of the most inefficient buildings in the school system, posing the third-highest maintenance cost, according to FCPS reports.
But community support for the school has been robust, and parents of students at the school and nearby residents have urged the board from the outset to explore alternate options to keep Sabillasville Elementary open. In February, the board voted to explore options and make a final decision on the school by the end of December.
In October, FCPS staff told the board that the only viable alternative was an open enrollment scenario. This would mean students from nearby schools that are crowded would have the ability, if they wished, to attend Sabillasville Elementary with provided transportation from the school system.
At the same October meeting, community members alerted the board that they were exploring the option of turning Sabillasville Elementary into a charter school. Board members were enthusiastic about the idea.
Since then, the community has been hard at work to develop its charter application. As the News-Post previously reported, the Sabillasville community seems to be interested in pursuing a classical education and turning the school into an institution similar to the Frederick Classical Charter School.
The board was slated to hear an update on both the community’s charter application and surveys regarding an open enrollment option at Monday’s meeting.
However, according to FCPS Superintendent Terry Alban, after consulting with legal counsel, it was determined the community should not update the board because it would be a conflict, since eventually the board itself will have to make a decision on the community’s charter application.
“In no way do we wish to deter their efforts, and we would certainly welcome any movement that they want to make towards possibly submitting an application for a charter school,” Alban said. “The board, because legally they have to make the decision about approval and whether or not they want to authorize this charter school, cannot be involved.”
Alban explained the charter process and the closure of the school are two different pathways that have to be handled separately. The only way the charter option can be pursued is if the school, under FCPS, is first closed.
Therefore, the board voted to close the school after hearing the results of the open enrollment survey that indicated the majority of parents from Yellow Springs Elementary would not be interested in sending their children to Sabillasville Elementary under an open enrollment option.
Out of 143 families that responded to the survey, only five indicated resounding interest in an open enrollment option.
Most families that responded no said it was because of the distance being too far.
Yellow Springs Elementary parents were the only ones surveyed because it is the only school within close enough proximity that would continue to be crowded in the coming years, according to FCPS.
Alban explained that the capacity of other nearby schools will be alleviated shortly with the opening of Blue Heron Elementary School. Schools in the Brunswick feeder pattern were not considered because the time required for those students to travel to Sabillasville Elementary would be slightly over the system’s policy of one hour on a bus, Alban said.
There was also a short discussion about a conversion charter option, which Alban said Alisha Yocum, president of the Sabillasville Elementary Parent Teacher Association, had brought up. Maryland charter law allows a board of education to directly convert a public school into a charter school if certain criteria are met.
This would mean the school wouldn’t have to be officially closed, and the charter application process would be simplified. Additionally, a conversion would guarantee that all enrolled students at Sabillasville Elementary would gain automatic enrollment into the new charter school.
If a new charter is proposed, the Maryland State Department of Education will have to grant a waiver for current students to automatically gain admission.
Alban told the board, however, that she was wary of how successful a conversion charter would be based on the criteria that would have to be met, particularly regarding the one specification that conversion is done to improve student academic performance.
Before voting, Board of Education President Brad Young said he wanted to be clear about why the board was voting to close the school.
“We need to let [the charter school] take its own course and not be a part of that,” Young said. “And for it to take place there has to be a building available. For there to be a building available, we have to make the move to close the school.”
The next step in the process, according to Young, will be for the school system to determine if there is another use for the building. Since it’s expected to be impractical for another use, the property will then be excised back to the county, which would most likely offer it up to be leased. This would give the opportunity for a newly proposed charter to step in.
Gallagher, the only board member who voted against the closure, seemed to be concerned that the community was unaware a vote on the future of the school would be taken at Monday’s meeting.
She pointed out the board did not receive any public comment.
“I want to make sure that we are transparent in what our process is and our communication,” Gallagher said. “I don’t want [the community] to end up feeling that we scheduled a meeting and [have] done this behind closed doors ... without any transparency and the opportunity for them to continue to weigh in.”
Yocum, president of the Sabillasville Elementary Parent Teacher Association, said in an email she was surprised the board took a vote. She said she asked ahead of Monday’s meeting if a vote would be taken and was told a final determination was not expected.
Therefore, the outcome of the meeting was a surprise, Yocum said, adding she understands that the school needed to close in order for the charter process to move forward. She said she wishes the board had given the community another opportunity to provide input, specifically regarding the conversion charter option.
“After our long journey, I am sorry to see it end in this way, without clear and transparent communication to our community,” Yocum said. “We are going to roll up our sleeves and submit the charter application in hopes that we will continue to have a school as the heart of our community.”