The announcement that Frederick County could not afford to fund two new schools simultaneously to address severe overcrowding — one on the west side of the city of Frederick, the other in Urbana — has spurred community advocates.
Though parents in both western Frederick and Urbana and the Board of Education have all said they do not wish to pit the communities against each other, representatives from each area have mobilized. Some have started lobbying efforts to the school board; others have struck up digital or grass-roots door-to-door campaigns.
Because the Board of Education members determine the order of school construction projects, the responsibility now falls to them to decide which school to prioritize. A public hearing on the Frederick County Public Schools master plan of capital projects is scheduled for Sept. 9 and will likely see heavy turnout from both sides.
Sugarloaf Elementary School, in Urbana, would sit west of Md. 355 and relieve the overflow at Urbana and Centerville elementary schools. Butterfly Ridge Elementary School, meanwhile, on Butterfly Lane, would primarily alleviate the overcrowding at Hillcrest Elementary, but also Waverley Elementary.
The Hillcrest community has devised a more traditional crusade, with some parents, including the PTA president, Lissette Colón, knocking on doors and urging their neighbors to attend the Wednesday hearing.
The recent attack nearby with a machete, which caused Hillcrest Elementary to be on partial lockdown for part of the day, served only to remind the parents how unsafe some aspects of the school are, including the many portable classrooms on campus, Colón said. The classrooms and other amenities are shoddy, too, and can’t handle the overflow of students.
“We only had a writing lab for like a year before it became a second lunchroom,” she said.
According to data from the previous school year, 956 children were enrolled at Hillcrest, even though the school’s capacity is 682 students. Hillcrest maintains a high Hispanic and low-income population; the postcard that the Hillcrest PTA sent home to children this week was printed with one side in English and the other in Spanish. Of the Hillcrest children, 569 identified as Hispanic and only 62 as white.
Eliezer Valentín-Castañón, the senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, which is near Hillcrest, said he has offered the church as a space for parents to meet, if necessary. A high population of non-native English speakers presents challenges, he and Colón said, and can make advocacy difficult.
Valentín-Castañón said he does not wish to see the discussion morph into a battle of Hispanic children versus white children. The Urbana population is primarily white and middle-class.
“This is not an issue about immigrant children, even though there are immigrant children. But there’s also immigrant children in Urbana,” he said. “Not everything is a conversation about us against them. It is a conversation about the children who need in Hillcrest, and the children who need in Urbana.”
Urbana Elementary also faces overcrowding, enrolling 730 students the previous school year, while the state-rated capacity was 663 students. But more concerning for parents are the nearby developments to the school, which have not yet finished but are being built up more every day.
Significant growth is expected in Urbana in the coming years, stemming from developments such as the Villages of Urbana.
Urbana Elementary is due for a replacement, too, according to the school system capital plan, after both Butterfly Ridge and Sugarloaf. School system staff members at an earlier meeting urged the Board of Education to consider building Sugarloaf and the new Urbana Elementary back to back, so that the students at Urbana Elementary could shift to Sugarloaf for the duration of construction.
Katie Conlee-Griffin, legislative chair of the Urbana Elementary School PTA, said that the dated, open-floor plan distracts students in the classroom. Most of the classrooms are separated not by walls, but by partitions, she said.
Urbana Principal Allie Watkins said he has not observed distraction in the classroom, but rather as the population of Urbana continues to grow, he has noticed traffic trouble, and he sees the writing on the wall.
Nima Fuentes, president of the PTA at Urbana, said the PTA has sent out email blasts encouraging a presence at the hearing and will post on the community Facebook page as well. Conlee-Griffin sent a direct email to the school board.
“Homes are still continuing to be built, the school is already over capacity. We don’t even have walls,” Fuentes said. “It’s just a safety issue. Even if they delay a year or two, the problem is just going to get worse.”
The Hillcrest community has garnered significant support from elected officials outside the Board of Education, which Urbana seemingly lacks.
The mayor and Board of Aldermen sent letters to both the County Council and school board reiterating their wishes that the Butterfly Ridge project stay on track.
Hillcrest provides the highest number of free and reduced-price lunches, and its students have historically received the lowest state test scores, according to the letter written by Mayor Randy McClement on behalf of the city. He also acknowledged the overcrowding in Urbana.
Several aldermen pointed to the Hargett Farm land gifted to the school system for the elementary school project as further reason why the city school funding should remain on track. The city sold 12 acres at Hargett Farm to the school board in 2012 for $1, according to the contract of sale.
“Part of that was because we wanted the project to move forward,” Alderwoman Donna Kuzemchak said of the gifted land.
The sale agreement requires that the school board use the land for a new school site but does not specify when the project must be funded or built.
“I think everyone appreciates that costs have gone up and funding is tight,” said Alderman Josh Bokee, who accompanied Hillcrest parents while they were canvassing.
Bokee said he hopes to fill the Wednesday hearing with city residents and advocates for the city elementary school project. He shared information about the meeting with a Neighborhood Advisory Council in the city’s western end, and he said he will continue advertising the event to school and neighborhood groups.
Urbana, on the other hand, is unincorporated and lacks a governing body to advocate for its school project. District 1 County Councilman Jerry Donald, who represents parts of Urbana, wrote in an email to The Frederick News-Post that he hoped to fund both school projects.
Donald called for more state government funding to cover both projects as the “fair thing to do,” he wrote, since the state is largely responsible for the increased costs of school construction.
Two laws have sharply increased school construction costs. One is new enforcement of stormwater management; the other, about prevailing wage, dictates that construction workers receive higher pay when they work on some school construction projects.
In a phone interview, Board of Education President Brad Young said he has received emails with arguments for both schools. One day, he said, he received eight emails, one asking for Sugarloaf first, seven for Butterfly Ridge.
Young said that despite testimony from County Executive Jan Gardner that the county cannot fund both schools at the same time, the board still may vote on the capital plan that places both Sugarloaf and Butterfly Ridge opening in summer 2018. He said that the board should ask for the optimal needs of the school system.