School redistricting, a real estate study and poor signage in hunting areas on the county’s western side were among the concerns citizens discussed with the Charles County delegation to the General Assembly on Thursday night.
Dels. C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) and Sally Jameson (D-Charles) gave residents the chance to voice major concerns of theirs at the meeting held at the Waldorf West library. First up was Waldorf resident Mike Hubenschmidt, who asked the delegation to revisit redistricting county high schools for the classes of 2016 and 2017, which he said “displaces 10th- and 11th-graders into foreign high schools in critical junctures of their life.” Hubenschmidt said he found through his research that 200 students at North Point High School, where his daughter attends school, will be affected. Of those, he said former superintendent of schools James E. Richmond made an exception allowing 96 to remain in place on the grounds of “inconvenience, supposedly,” in Hubenschmidt’s words.
Hubenschmidt said he has seen the negative effects of redistricting manifested within his own family. Several years ago, Hubenschmidt said one of his daughters was redistricted going into 10th grade, which made her “withdrawn” and far less communicative with her family. Now, Hubenschmidt said, another daughter of his, a current NPHS student, stands to be affected by redistricting, as well.
“How do I explain to my daughter ... that those other kids are special people?,” Hubenschmidt asked the delegates. “When [President George W. Bush] said, ‘No child left behind,’ I don’t remember him saying, ‘Except for a few.’ Our children are just numbers on a page to them. Help us help the children. They are not just numbers.”
Jameson expressed her sympathy for the family’s potential future plight, and Wilson did, as well.
“[The schools are] one of the reasons you invest in a property ... and it’s something of a shocker,” Wilson said, acknowledging that he regularly hears concerns about hardships caused by redistricting from his constituents.
Andy Rickert, the grandfather of Hubenschmidt’s children, expressed concerns about the amount of children who attend North Point from outside both the county and the district. Jameson said the school’s technical education program allows for 50 percent of the school’s population to be comprised of students from outside the district. Out-of-county students, Wilson said, are a different story entirely. Committing fraud to have a child attend a school other than the one they are slated for is a crime, Wilson said, noting that Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D) has said it is an offense the office will prosecute. However, Wilson said, parents can pay a fee for their children to attend certain other high schools in the county if outside their district, but he was unsure if this caveat applied to North Point.
Larreic Green, a 2014 candidate for county commissioner and Bryans Road resident, shared his own experiences growing up as “a child of redistricting” and said it contributed to feelings of volatility in his youth.
“I know what it feels like ... because I never really got a chance to even blossom in one place,” Green said, adding he now sees his own children have to travel far for school, and he is unsure about the effect it will have on them moving forward.
The delegates heard a presentation from Southern Maryland Association of Realtors government affairs spokeswoman Paula Martino on the role real estate plays in Charles County’s economy. The report, Martino said, previously has been presented before the county commissioners and was compiled by Baltimore-based Sage Policy Group.
The study was done as a response to a potential moratorium on development in the county and how that would affect the county’s school construction excise tax. The study found that a moratorium would reduce developers’ payments into seats in schools.
Martino said the group was “astounded by the findings” in the study. Among its findings, Martino said, is the revelation that the real estate industry in Charles County creates more than 6,700 jobs, 4,119 of which are direct. Employee pay for the industries in 2012 totaled nearly $350 million and sales values were nearly $635 million, making the industry overall worth more than $930 million for the county.
“We’re very concerned that there hasn’t been a lot of positive press,” Martino said. “We are a part of this economic engine, and it needs to be considered.”
Martino also said the county does not have a problem funding school construction in Charles County because it is funded by developers. The excise tax, which was established in 2002 and applies to homes built after July 2003, is paid back by homeowners during a 10-year period and is used by the county to pay back bonds used for school construction.
“Not one penny of Charles County property or income tax goes to funding school construction,” Martino said, noting their study speaks to some of Hubenschmidt’s concerns.
“We certainly do need another elementary school. ... That’s where enrollment is the highest,” Martino said. “But that would not solve overcrowding and never will.”
Martino said Charles County is the only county in the state that has not put any money toward capacity renovations for schools in 12 years.
“It’s a problem with policy and not funding,” Martino said. “They want that to be the best-kept secret in Charles County.
“We are at a loss as to why the school board will not be honest with parents. Stopping growth and development will not stop population growth,” Martino said.
Jameson asked what schools did when all-day kindergarten began, and Martino said the schools use existing space and trailers instead of building additional rooms.
Charles County Public Schools spokeswoman Katie O’Malley-Simpson said when the switch was made to all-day kindergarten in 2008, the schools did not all immediately have new rooms built. However, O’Malley-Simpson said, “a number of schools have received kindergarten additions” in the following years, and new schools built include space for this purpose. Not all schools, however, have specifically dedicated kindergarten classrooms at this point.
Martino also said of the 265 trailers at county schools, 100 are at schools that are under state-rated capacity for enrollment.
Wilson said most people might not realize more houses does not necessarily mean overcrowded schools.
“For me, as Joe Citizen, where I live in Kingsview ... logic just dictates more houses, more crowding in schools,” Wilson said. “I don’t think anyone knows [that might not be true].”
“As a delegation, we have very much advocated for dollars to come back to Charles County schools for renovation,” Jameson said. “We are consistent on our list of things every year. I don’t want anyone to walk away thinking we’re not going to advocate for our school system.”
Dianne Farley of Nanjemoy shared her concerns about safety in the parks near her home, which she said affects “every user ... of public land in Charles County and the state.”
Of the 1,800 acres of parkland and 12 different parks, all of which allow hunting, all contain an inadequate amount of signs advising parkgoers of designated hunting areas, creating major safety threats. Poor cellphone reception and unclear locations also plague the parks, Farley said.
“None of these properties has a clear, concise or accurate posting advising users that they may be entering an open hunting area when they walk on the trails, when they eat at a picnic table, or when they walk along the Potomac shoreline,” Farley said. “... So, there’s the issue.
“The Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service does not exercise due diligence in posting informational signage on site, which would allow users to make informed and reasoned decisions about the very real risks they take when using Maryland’s public lands.”
Farley said she has fought this battle for the past five years and has grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of responsiveness from park officials.
During a meeting with some officials, “We were assured that any action of any branch of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources went ‘above and beyond’ the normal protocol and procedure of Maryland DNR, and this action really only served to burden an overworked, understaffed, budget-constrained group of dedicated public servants employed by DNR,” Farley said. “We were advised that if ‘users don’t feel safe here in the parks, they should just stay home,’ ... that ‘users should inform themselves before they even come to the parks, as it is their responsibility to know the rules and what activity takes place here. ... And I was advised not to contact my legislators because it engendered hostility.”
Farley said her hopes for change are simple.
“I want the people who choose to come Maryland to enjoy the many recreational opportunities available to them in our precious natural areas to have the safest experience possible,” Farley said. “I want to know that the Maryland DNR has recognized that their first responsibility to the public is to do every thing possible to provide for every user’s safety in every area where their Wildlife and Heritage Service administers hunting.”
Farley said she has become frustrated with the county’s similar unwillingness to take action.
Jameson said Wilson sits on subcommittees that deal with issues in the parks.
“Our key role is to ensure health and safety, and you’ve met tonight a key figure” in pursuit of that in the parks, Jameson said. Wilson additionally promised to review the issue further and to discuss the possibility of introducing a bill dedicated to better signs and other increased safety measures in the parks.
DNR Director of Wildlife Paul Peditto said in a followup phone interview that DNR staff has met with Farley in the past to address her concerns, but said the scope of their powers only goes so far.
“We’ve got a 100-year history of regulated hunting in Maryland, and we’ve never had a nonhunter in Maryland shot, killed or injured by a hunter,” Peditto said. He also noted that in the area Farley is concerned with, there are state park lands, and said that there may be “confusion on the part of the constituent” in regard to which body manages what land.
“We remain open to trying to help but we’re not sure what else we can do,” Peditto said.