Parents Group Challenges Commissioners on School Funding

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Francoise Sullivan (L) and Jodi Bortz of the Support Our Schools group

The Support Our Schools (SOS) parents’ group came to the Kent County Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, Sept. 19, and they had a clear message for the county officials.

Jodi Bortz, Robbi Behr and Francoise Sullivan, three of the founders of the SOS group, told commissioners Ron Fithian and William Pickrum that education should be a priority for county government, and that they will hold elected officials accountable for any shortcoming in the county’s support for the sehools. Commissioner Billy Short was absent from the meeting.

The SOS group read a statement responding to a letter the commissioners published in the Kent County News, in which they said the county is faced with flat revenues both from taxes and from state funding. The commissioners’ letter also noted that they are responsible for running the entire county, not just the school system, which is partially funded by the State of Maryland.

In a reply published in the Chestertown Spy Sept. 14, SOS challenged the commissioners’ assertion and presented data supporting their position. At the meeting Tuesday, the parents reiterated their challenge, noting that the percentage of Kent County’s contribution to the schools is 37 percent of the budget, lower than the statewide average of 42 percent. SOS also questioned why the county required the school system use its fund balance to make up a promised $1.6 million contribution from the commissioners. Sullivan said the schools’ fund balance should be the same percentage as the county’s, which is 7.5 percent of the budget.

Kent County Commissioners Ron Fithian (L) and William Pickrum

In response, Pickrum said schools in “a lot of other” Maryland counties don’t have a fund balance. He said “it doesn’t take forever” for the commissioners to supply additional funding when the school board faces an emergency. He also noted that the county has taxing and borrowing authority, while the board of education does not.

The commissioners called on Pat Merritt, the county’s chief finance officer, to present data supporting their position. Merrit presented slides showing that the county’s contribution to the schools has remained essentially level over the last five years. She also said that the discrepancy between Kent’s contribution to the school budget and the higher percentage in other counties is explainable by the fact that Kent has only 10 percent of its population in the public schools, compared to an average of 15 percent statewide.

Bortz said the health of the school system is a key ingredient of the economic health of the cuunty. She said the commissioners would be well advised to increase the funding for the county’s Economic Development Commission so it can publicize Route 301 economic zone, the county-wide gigabit internet service, and attend regional economic events to publicize the county. An increase in economic activity will produce an increase in tax revenues, providing more money for sehools and everything else, she said. “We stand ready to assist,” she said.

Behr said as the SOS group concluded, “Let’s make Kent County a place to live, rather than a place to die.”

The meeting began with a presentation by Superintendent Karen Couch, who summarized the school district’s decision to terminate its contract with Reliable Transportation of Baltimore, the contractor brought on to provide bus service to the county schools. After receiving numerous complaints of late buses, missed pickups, poor communication and other problems, the school district decided to adopt a hybrid system, under which it would use local contractors for some routes and purchase about 13 buses to serve the rest of the routes in the county. She detailed the financial arrangements, and requested the transfer of $175,000 from the school district’s fund balance to cover the cost of the adjustment. The commissioners approved the request.

Couch also asked if the school district could park some of its buses as the county’s public works department on Morgnec Road and others at the Kent County High School lot in Worton. Current zoning does not allow a bus depot in the county. She said the school district would apply for a zoning text amendment to allow a depot for school buses, and requested a waiver of the application fee. The commissioners approved the request to use the Morgnec road facility for bus parking. As for the fee waiver, County Administrator Shelley Heller said it should be requested when the application is submitted. “That should be a no-brainer,” said Fithian.

The commissioners also approved a request by the school district to fuel the buses from county supplies, which are purchased in bulk at a considerable savings over market price. The audience at the meeting gave Couch a round of applause at the end of her presentation.

 

Bus Company Working to Fix Problems

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Reliable Transportation’ school buses parked at the former bowling alley on Route 213 in Queen Anne’s County

The Kent County Public Schools’ ongoing problems with bus service brought out a large crowd to the Board of Education meeting in Rock Hall, Sept. 11, and both the school board and the new bus company, Reliable Transportation of Baltimore, said they were making every effort to solve the problems.

Buses have been up to an hour late, failed to arrive at all, or dropped students off at the wrong place – sometimes as much as a mile away from the designated bus stop.  Buses have broken down enroute and run out of gas. Poor communication between the bus company, its drivers, the schools, the parents, and the school administrative offices has exacerbated the situation.

Jay Walbert, the bus fleet manager for Reliable Transportation, said in an interview at the bus depot on Sept. 12, that the company has 30 buses, including spares, available for the school district. There are 24 routes in the county, he said, including four buses for special needs students. The buses, all of which are owned by Reliable, are parked in an enclosed lot at the former Kent Bowling Center on Route 213; the company is parking the buses there because Kent County zoning does not currently permit a bus depot in the county.

Walbert said Reliable attempted to hire local drivers with knowledge of the area, but with limited success. At the time he talked to the Spy, he said there were only six local drivers working for Reliable. Others had to be hired in Baltimore, and elsewhere, requiring them to commute to Kent County. Walbert said some local drivers had agreed to work for Reliable, but then failed to appear on the day they were supposed to start work. He said he was still trying to find qualified local drivers who were willing to work for Reliable. Drivers are paid for six to eight hours a day, $19.50/hour, plus benefits, he said. In addition to the regular to- and from-school routes, drivers take students to sports events, field trips, and other special trips.

Training for new drivers, Walbert said, began about two weeks before school opened.  However, as a number of expected new-hires did not show up, Reliable had to scramble to find replacements before school opened.

While new drivers were given training in their routes, Walbert said, many of them have trouble distinguishing landmarks in rural areas. Some side roads are poorly marked or not marked at all, and in some areas, tall corn stalks hide signs. “All corn fields look the same” to a city driver, he said. He said the company put guides with local knowledge on the buses to help the drivers learn the routes.

He also said there were technical problems with some of the equipment obtained from the Kent County Board of Education. All but one bus had radio equipment as of Sept. 12, and a receiver had been ordered for that one, he said. However, the radio base station was an older model that needed to be rebuilt, he said.  So communication with all buses while they are on the road should be available as soon as the base station is fixed.  He did not have a timeline for that. As for possible workarounds of using GPS or cell phones, he noted that there are areas of the county where neither GPS systems nor cell phones reliable.

Walbert said he had received angry and threatening phone calls at his home number since taking the job with Reliable this summer. “I just hang up if they start to curse me,” he said. On the other hand, he said some parents have brought donuts for the drivers, and a group of parents in Galena apologized for the way some drivers had been treated.

Walbert, who lives in Queen Anne’s County, said that he completely understands and agrees with the importance of bus safety and accurate, on-time performance.  He understands that the buses are carrying “precious cargo”. He said that the company is hiring and training new drivers and believes that the problems will be ironed out soon.

This is the first year of a 4-year contract for Reliable Transportation of Baltimore.  Previously the Kent County Public Schools had contracted since 1997 with Kent County Bus Contractors LLC to provide bus service.   Kent County Bus Contractors LLC – known colloquially as the LLC – is a consortium of local bus owners who had organized, among other reasons, to make negotiating contracts easier. This way the school system did not have multiple contracts.  However, due to budget problems, the school system decided to put the contract out to bid for the 2017-18 school year.  Reliable won the bid.

The Kent County Board of Education meets tonight, Sept. 18, at the school board offices in Rock Hall; the open portion of the meeting is at 6:30; the transportation problems are on the agenda. The Support Our Schools group, parents who are concerned over a wide range of educational issues in the county, plans to make a presentation to the Kent County Commissioners Tuesday night, Sept. 19; the meeting is at 6 p.m. in the county office building, 400 High St.

A Perfect Day for Jazz!

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It was a perfect day – temps in the low 70s with the occasional light breeze and fluffy white clouds that came and went in a blue sky.  Some sat on folding chairs in the big tent where they were closer to the musicians.  Others brought canvas chairs or blankets and sat out on the lawn, enjoying the music and watching the ships sail by.  All in all, about 300 people came to the big tent by the Chester River for the 2017 Chestertown Jazz Festival.

Andy Bienstock, the jazz DJ of WYPR, was an ideal choice as master of ceremonies for the festival. A regular visitor to Chestertown, Bienstock relaxed and enjoyed the sun in between introducing acts. Before the final act, he was presented with a basket of Kent County goodies — including wine from Crow Vineyands and a hand-made cheese board from Bob Ortiz — by festival impressario Dr. Mel Rapelyea and Leslie Raimond of the Kent County Arts Council.

Mel Repelyea and Andy Bienstock

Founded and chaired by Rapelyea, the festival is co-sponsored by the Kent County Arts Council and the Garfield Center for the Arts. The first Chestertown Jazz Festival was held in 1996 though there has not been a festival every year.

The festival started at 11 a.m. and ran til 6 p.m. with a total of six acts in a wide variety of jazz styles.  Something for everyone.  There was a focus on youth this year with two of the groups featuring young musicians, one only 13 years old, but he played a mean upright bass that could be the envy of many professional musicians three or four times his age.

Friends of Faith

 

 

 

 

 

Starting out the day was the gospel group Friends of Faith. With six singers backed up by piano, bass, and drums, they brought high energy to the stage with their rendition of modern gospel songs.

Next up was Capital Focus Jazz Band, a group of young musicians playing traditional New Orleans style jazz.  It was impressive that musicians so young – several teenagers and no one over 25 – had such a strong feeling for music nearly a century old.  They played tunes from King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton along with some Swing standards and an original by one of the band members. Maya Collings, a high school student and the newest member of Capital Focus, played piano and sang “Nobody’s Sweetheart Now” with the accompaniment of the whole band.  See their website for more information and to hear some of their music.

Capital Focus Jazz Band

Maya Collings of Capital Focus Jazz Band 

The John Thomas Quartet played a high-energy set of modern jazz standards including “Stella by Starlight” and “Solar”.  Tenor saxophonist Thomas was inspired by Joe Henderson, but he is equally adept at jazz and classical styles.  He has taught the saxophone at the college level and is currently the Director of Jazz  Ensembles at the Baltimore School of the Arts.  Thomas has also appeared with such popular groups as the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Glen Miller Orchestra, Ben Vereen, and Little Anthony and the Imperials.

John Thomas

The Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet  brought hip harmonies reminiscent of Manhattan Transfer or Lambert, Hendricks and Ross with their scatting interpretations of tunes like “Cloud Burst” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” 

The Washington-based Jazz Academy of Music is a big band consisting of high school students under the leadership of Paul Carr. The group of about twenty musicians appearing at the festival was only half of the whole band but it produced a fully-authentic big-band sound with impressive soloists. The other half of the full ensemble was performing at the Silver Spring Jazz Festival the same day.

Jazz Academy of Music

Gabriella Capizzi belts out “Angel Eyes” with the Jazz Academy of Music

The closing act was the Joey DeFrancesco Quartet featuring DeFrancesco on Hammond organ,  vocals, and trumpet.  Jason Brown on drums, Dan Wilson on guitar, and Troy Roberts on tenor sax covered the stylistic range from Thelonious Monk to Sam Cooke — but the focus was on funky, hip-shaking numbers that had the crowd on its feet. A perfect way to end a perfect day for jazz!

Photography by Peter Heck and Jane Jewell.

Joey DeFrancesco at the organ

Carolyn Jewell, WYPR Director of Membership, shows off new WYPR T-shirt.

MC Andy Bienstock is one of the founders of WYPR (Your Public Radio) and this year marks the 15th anniversary of the station.  They had a booth with a collage of photographs depicting the shows with their hosts and guests over the 15 years.  Attendees also got to see a preview of the new member gifts that the radio station will be offering in the coming year.  (They weren’t for sale; if you want one, you’ll have to wait for the next pledge drive!)

Big Red Bull

Walker Family

Several vendors and organizations were on-site to provide food and souvenirs.  There was delicious pit beef and pork from Big Red Bull catering while the Walker Family food truck offered a range of food and beverages. Crow Winery was there as well as Lockbriar Farms.  Lockbriar’s ice cream was one of the most popular items of the day.

Lockbriar Farms

Carol Mylander of Chestertown and Karen Fazekas of Annapolis enjoy the festival.

Nehemiah Williams – festival assistant

Chestertown Jazz Festival staff

The Sultana sailed regally by while the music played.

View of  the Chester River from the Jazz Festival at Wilmer Park in Chestertown, MD.

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Church Hill Theatre’s “Doubt” is a Must-See

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Sister Aloysius (Kathy Jones) and Sister James (Kendall Davis) discuss what to do. (Photo by Steve Atkinson – courtesy of Church Hill Theatre)

Community theaters thrive on cozy mysteries and popular musicals; but at their best, they can take on far more challenging projects. For clear proof, theater lovers need to look no further than the production of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt — A Parable, now playing at Church Hill Theatre.

Written in 2004,  Doubt won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award in 2005 and was an Academy Award-nominated film starring Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in 2008. The play’s original production ran 525 performances. It has seen numerous revivals, including a number of international performances in France, Germany, the Philippines and Australia.

Directed by Michael Whitehill, the play deploys a solid cast in a tense examination of the kind of issue that can destroy a community. Set in a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, it begins with Father Flynn, one of the parish priests, delivering a sermon on the subject of doubt. Warm and colloquial, the sermon quickly establishes the priest as likable and humane – a good example of the kind of change that was coming to the church (and society at large) in the 1960s.

Father Flynn (John Haas) preaches a sermon on “doubt”.  (Photo by Steve Atkinson – courtesy of Church Hill Theatre)

But the second scene throws a cloud over that impression. Two nuns – young, idealistic Sister James and older, traditional Sister Aloysius, the principal of the school – meet to discuss Sister James’s classes. Sister Aloysius quickly makes it clear that she holds a dim view of the changes in the church, and of Sister James’s more modern ideas – including her enthusiasm for teaching history and her naive view of her eighth-grade students. The discussion focuses on one student in particular – Donald Muller, the school’s first black student. As the plot develops, young Donald – who never appears on stage – becomes the focus of everyone’s attention.

The conflict turns critical when Sister James tells her principal that Donald has come back from a meeting with Father Flynn with the smell of alcohol on his breath. What is going on? There is no solid evidence but Sister Aloysius is certain that something is going on, something that might bring scandal to the parish and to her school. The overall themes of the play comes in the attempts of the two nuns to get to the heart of the issue.

Mrs. Muller (Barbi Bedell) is called into the principal’s office to discuss her son Donald. (Photo by Steve Atkinson – courtesy of Church Hill Theatre)

The play builds up to its crisis through several meetings among the characters, in twos or threes, with an appearance by Donald’s mother introducing new – and even more confusing – evidence into the building case. The characters move back and forth between doubt and certainty about all the questions arising from a seemingly minor incident. The theme of doubt builds relentlessly – and in the end, the audience is likely to be torn between those who want to see the best in the characters and those who fear the worst. But the core of the play concerns the process of moving between certainty and doubt, of living in ambiguity, of whether we ever can be really certain — and of how being certain can limit what we see.  Power struggles go one both between the characters and within each character’s conscience.

Whitehill has assembled a strong cast, and they make the most of the challenging script.  John Haas takes the role of Father Flynn, and his performance does a good deal to give the play its bite. For the play to achieve its point, the audience has to find Flynn likable and sincere – even a bit charismatic – and Haas does that very convincingly. A history professor at Chesapeake College, Haas has been onstage in several previous CHT productions – but this role is among his strongest to date.

Kendall Davis, a 2016 Washington College graduate – with a double degree in theater and English – plays Sister James with just the right degree of earnestness. Davis has had several recent roles in CHT productions, including in Jake’s Women and Witness for the Prosecution. Here, she brings a warm portrayal of a character caught in the transition between her calling to a very traditional institution and the new ideas filling the air in the early ’60s.

Kathy Jones is appropriately stony as Sister Aloysius, in many ways the least sympathetic character in the cast — and yet, what if she’s right?  She is the classic stereotype of a Catholic school teaching nun – a ruler-wielding, by-the-rules disciplinarian, sure that she is right.  But Jones lets her character’s human side show through just enough to prevent the principal from being only a stereotype. Sister Aloysius likes gardening and listening to a transistor radio – that she confiscated from a student!  And she cares about her school and its students.  And she will fight when she feels her school, its students, or its reputation are in danger. An outstanding performance in a very challenging role.

Barbi Bedell takes the role of Mrs. Muller – a role she played in a production of the same play at the Garfield Center in 2009. As with the other characters, the role is more complex than it may at first seem — Mrs. Muller is intent on protecting her son from a range of threats far wider than the nuns are aware of. Bedell effectively conveys her practical wisdom and her deep commitment to her son’s future.  She may be the only one who understands that everyday life is complex and uncertain.

The set was attractive though unusual, with the stage divided between two mini-sets: an outdoor shrine at stage right, and Sister Aloysius’s office at stage left. This meant that the majority of the action took place on one wing of the stage or the other, with two sermons by Father Flynn the main exceptions.  The lighting is used to good effect, fading in and out to indicate change of place or the passage of time.  There are no blackouts or scene changes to disrupt the flow of the story.

Tea with Sister Aloysius who rules the school from her office. (Photo by Steve Atkinson – courtesy of Church Hill Theatre)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The play runs about 90 minutes with no intermissions. Each performance will be followed by a talk-back session with the audience, director, and actors – an interesting look both at the audience’s reactions to the performance and at the very serious thought the cast put into realizing the play’s themes. About half the audience stayed for the discussion – which got into considerable detail about the script and the strategies the director and cast used to make it work on stage. Whitehill said on Wednesday that the audience members who stayed for the talkback were eager to share their perspective, with one night’s audience staying two hours after the final curtain to discuss the issues raised by the script and the performance. Be sure to stay for the talkback — it adds a real dimension to the play’s themes.

In case I haven’t made it clear, this production of Doubt is a must-see for anyone who enjoys serious, thought-provoking drama. Kudos to Whitehill and the outstanding cast, and to Church Hill Theatre for this high-caliber production.

Doubt will be playing through Sept. 24, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $20 for adults, with a $5 discount for CHT members; student tickets are $10.

For reservations, visit the theater website or call 410-556-6003.

Parents Berate School Board for Bus Problems

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An angry crowd confronted the Kent County Board of Education at a special meeting at the school board office in Rock Hall, Monday, Sept. 11, where parents and other residents aired grievances about school buses. For more than four hours, the board heard calls for its members to resign, for the bus service contract to be terminated, and threats of lawsuits – along with detailed accounts of children waiting hours for buses to appear, and parents missing work because of the mix-ups.

The crowd, which overflowed the meeting room into the hallway outside, was there to complain that the Baltimore-based contractor for bus service, Reliable Transportation, was not delivering the service it was brought in to provide. Speaker after speaker told of drivers running late – often more than an hour  – missing pickups, dropping students off at the wrong place, and sometimes failing to appear altogether. Some complained of inadequate safety equipment, dangerous driving and rude behavior by the drivers. And almost all were angry because neither the school system nor the bus contractor provided adequate communication about the problems and the effect on individual students. Shouts of “Do your job,” “It’s not working,” and “Fix it now” were combined with charges of arrogance and putting a price tag on children’s safety.

School Board members at the Sept. 11 meeting.

Karen Couch, Kent County Superintendent of Education, began the meeting by summarizing the background of the dispute. The school board, facing a budget deficit of $2 million at the beginning of the year, took several steps, including closing the Worton and Millington elementary schools, to try to eliminate the deficit. One of the board’s choices was putting the county’s transportation contract out for bids. It received two responses, one from Reliable and the other from the local coalition of bus contractors that previously served the county. Reliable was the low bidder after the local coalition raised its previous contract price to $1.2 million.

Reliable attempted to hire local drivers, with mixed success, Couch said. Several of the local drivers who initially showed interest dropped out or failed to appear for work, she said. As a result, many bus drivers were unfamiliar with local roads; additionally, they had long commutes from the western shore that made it difficult for them to arrive in time for their runs. Couch said the schools expected students to be transported safely, efficiently, and in a timely manner – “And they’re not.” She said the board

had spent most of a 90-minute closed session consulting with legal counsel considering its options for resolving the problem.

After Couch’s comments, school board President Trish McGee opened the floor to residents who had signed up to speak. All told, more than 30 came to the microphone, and several more shouted out questions from the audience, interrupting the speakers and those attempting to answer their questions. McGee frequently asked the audience to let the speakers or board members be heard. A request that speakers limit their remarks to three minutes was ignored almost from the start.  As the evening went on, there was more and more shouting of questions and comments from the audience.

Many of the speakers offered variations of the same story – children waiting long times for the bus, not knowing what bus was serving their route, drivers missing stops or refusing to stop at designated locations, calls to the school or school board not being answered, mothers missing work hours to get their children to school. Worry about their children’s safety and the effect of missing classes were also common themes.

One major concern was the lack of radio communication with the bus drivers.  In previous years, the transportation manager was in constant radio contact with the drivers.   One parent said that last week one bus ran out of gas and the bus – with driver and all the students – just sat on the roadside until someone at Molly’s restaurant noticed that they needed help.  The driver could not, by law, leave the students alone in the bus.  But the driver could not radio in the problem.  Thus neither the school nor the parents knew where the children were.  It is not known why a cell phone was not used to contact the bus supervisor about the gas problem. Dixon said that he was not aware of any buses were without working radios, but that he would check on it.

The room was crowded with many people standing along the walls in the back.

Several parents said they were risking their jobs by taking time to wait with their children or to drive them to school. At least one child was apparently taken all the way to Middletown, Delaware – it was not clear how or when the student finally got home. Another parent said her child requires a seat belt for health reasons, but the bus he rode does not have any. Several said the school district has exposed itself to numerous liability issues because of Reliable’s failure to provide safety equipment.

Timothy Dixon, CEO of Reliable Bus Transportation out of Baltimore

Rebecca Herz-Smith and Francoise Sullivan, members of the Support Our Schools parents’ group (SOS), presented a list of 18 questions members of their group had for the board. Several were directed to Timothy Dixon, CEO of Reliable, who was present at the meeting. Asked what steps were being taken to prevent delays caused by long commutes for out-of-county drivers, Dixon said all efforts were being made to hire local drivers. He said that many who initially signed up failed to appear for work. He said Baltimore drivers were being used because of a shortage of locals. He said Reliable offered “the highest pay in the area” plus significant benefits, and made every effort to get drivers trained for the works and familiar with the routes.

SOS asked about missing safety equipment including lights and safety bars. Couch said the equipment is not required by Maryland law but is a county option. She said that in response to complaints, the county is using grant funds to install the equipment, which has been received by the maintenance department and will be installed soon.

Asked how the board will respond if Reliable can’t fulfill the contract, Couch said the county is exploring its options, but cannot discuss details at present.

SOS asked if there is a master list of what buses are on what routes, and which children are assigned to each bus, and whether it can be made available to parents. Dixon said he would provide the list to the board. “I don’t know how to get it to parents,” he said.

Sullivan suggested giving each student an ID number that would be available to parents to protect student’s privacy.

The meeting was live-streamed from SOS’s FaceBook page, bringing in an audience of several hundred more. The SOS webpage states that its purpose is “Prioritizing funding and support for public education in the 2016 Comprehensive Plan for Kent County.”

Jerry Bramble, who said he had 34 years’ experience as a school bus driver, said he believed the problems could have been avoided if Couch had negotiated with the local drivers’ coalition before signing up with Reliable. He said Reliable has a poor track record.

Couch said Bramble’ summary was accurate, but the law doesn’t allow negotiations after a bidding process is complete.

Bramble said the first step to solving the problem would be for the county to reinstate its former supervisor of transportation, whose loss deprived the county of a significant body of experience. He said the next step would be to terminate Reliable, which he said was in clear breach of contract; loud applause greeted this suggestion. The final step, he said was for the board to resign. He accused the board and Couch of playing “liberal politics” and “sugar-coating” the situation. He advised the audience to “buckle your seat belts – we’re in for a long, long ride.”

Several parents expressed anger over Couch’s salary and the fact that she received a raise when her contract was renewed last year. McGee said Couch got a one-time 2 percent raise – the same as every other staff member in the school system. Couch’s total salary is $155,448, McGee said. The actual numbers did little to appease other speakers, some of whom mentioned their own salaries – one woman said she makes $38,000 and is in danger of losing her job because the bus crisis has made her miss work.

Lack of communication was another repeated complaint. Parents said their calls to the schools or the administration’s office were not answered and messages were not answered.  Couch said that the staff was working overtime to answer calls, but the volume of calls made it impossible to respond to everyone in real time.

Jodi Bortz, another member of SOS, said money can fix the problems. She said residents need to tell the Kent County Commissioners that education is a priority. She said the commissioners had cut their contribution to the school budget by more than $1 million over the last two years, and would probably make more cuts, leading to further reductions in service at the school district. “It’s your tax dollars they’re spending on other things instead of our schools,” she said. You need to tell the people who control the tax money where to put it.”

School board member Wendy Costa suggested that parents and others with time available could volunteer to help get through the bus crisis until a long-term solution is found. She said she was willing to go to a school and watch over students until parents can pick them up. She also suggested that parents who drive to work can drop students off at school on the way. Neither suggestion was popular with the crowd.

The last speaker of the evening was Misty Mett, a freshman at Kent County High School, who offered a student’s perspective on the bus problem. She said it was causing stress because of worry about her younger siblings and about missing class time, to the detriment of their education. “It feels like we’re losing respect for the county and the students,” she said.

By the end of the evening, more than 30 residents had spoken, and a number more had left before their name was called. McGee summed up the situation by saying she was appalled at the delivery of bus service this year. “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do, Mr. Dixon,” she said. She said she voted for the contract with Reliable, but never imagined it would cause the trouble it did. “We’ve got to figure out how to balance our budget,” she said.

Other school board members essentially echoed McGee’s sentiments. Jeff Reed said he was appalled and embarrassed by the situation and had lost sleep over the delays and mistakes. Joe Goetz said the problems “come down to communication and safety,” and promised they would be corrected.

Couch said she was “deeply sorry” for the problems and that solving them was very important to the administration. She said she was coming into the office at 4 a.m. and working late hours because of it. She said the problems would be solved as quickly as possible, but that she could not state a firm deadline. Pressed, she said it would be a couple of weeks at the outside.

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First Day of School – By Boat!

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New students and faculty arrive to campus by boat from the Centreville Wharf and are greeted by the entire Gunston community.

On Tuesday, September 5, Gunston held its annual Embarkation ceremony. As a 107-year old school, Gunston has many traditions, but few are as meaningful as Embarkation—all new students and faculty arrive on their first day to campus by boat. Gunston’s sixty-four new students and seven new faculty and staff members departed from the Centreville Wharf, traveled down the Corsica River, and arrived at the school’s waterfront, where they were greeted by the school’s Headmaster, Mr. John Lewis. After shaking the Headmaster’s hand, each student signed the school’s honor code—Responsibilities of the Community, then climbed the stairs of the embankment and proceeded to shake the hand of every member of the student body, faculty and administration. “This ceremony is meaningful and symbolic” commented Lewis, “as it celebrates our unique connection to the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and also celebrates our strong sense of community.” Many of Gunston’s new parents were on hand to witness the event.

The class of 1921, led by freshman Emma McClary, shakes hand with each of their new classmates.

This year, Gunston—a co-educational college preparatory high school–is opening at a historically high enrollment of 195, and welcomes new students from Queen Anne’s, Kent, Talbot, Cecil, Caroline, and Anne Arundel counties, as well as Delaware. Gunston also welcomes a number of students from overseas, with students arriving this year from Switzerland, Japan, and China. Lewis said, “We’re excited to be welcoming such a large and talented class of new students, and with our largest enrollment, we are looking forward to a great year.”

Gunston School Sept 5, 2017

Gunston School began in 1911.  Originally called the Gunston Farm School, it was founded by Sam and Mary Middleton on their farm along the Corsica River near Centreville in order to provide their daughter Emilie, a polio victim, with the highest quality education. From the beginning, the school had a strong focus on academics, coupled with development of character. Important features of the early curriculum included the performance of plays by Shakespeare and an emphasis on French, the international language of diplomacy. The primary athletic activity was horseback riding, a feature that lasted into the 1960s. Students rode day and were responsible for maintaining the house and the stables.

“Aunt Mary” Middleton – long-time headmistress and founder of the Gunston School

Sam Middleton passed away in 1929, but “Aunt Mary” Middleton continued to oversee the school for another 35 years, building Gunston from a small boarding school to one of the more prestigious college preparatory schools for girls in Maryland. The school’s website quotes one alumna’s comments on “Aunt Mary” saying  “Mary Middleton was not a woman who expected accolades. She was a doer, not a talker. She had character and backbone. She was bold and formidable. She was a fighter and a peacemaker, a diplomat when necessary.”

While there were occasional male students through the years, Gunston remained primarily a girls’ school until 1991.  At the same time, Gunston became a day school only with no boarding facilities.  In recent years, the school has been roughly evenly distributed between male and female students. The total number of faculty, both full and part-time, is 29.  The instructional class size averages 10-12 pupils per class. The emphasis is on a highly academic college preparatory curriculum, though sports and community service are also emphasized. In a typical year, all graduates go on to pursue higher education.

The tradition of new students arriving on campus by boat began in 2010 when John Lewis became headmaster. He saw the school’s waterfront location as an important asset and decided to incorporate it into the students’ first day of school. In addition to the embarkation ceremony, he introduced the tradition of older students lining up to greet the new students with a handshake. In the spring, the seniors leave by boat.

Headmaster John Lewis meets new students at the dock on Gunston’s campus.

In mid-may, all students participate in a week of Chesapeake Bay studies, some with overnight trips and some on day trips.  Following Chesapeake Bay week, qualified seniors may serve a two-week internship with a local business or organization or another project of their choice.  Graduation is in early June.

Senior Lila Ingersoll of Chestertown speaks to the assembled school.

For more information visit the Gunston School website.

See more pictures of Embarkation Day below.  All photos courtesy of Gunston School.

New faculty & staff also arrived by boat.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fighting the Plastic Plague

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Former mayor Margo Bailey tells the Chestertown council about  the impact of plastic waste

Margo Bailey has a plan to reduce plastic waste in the environment.

Bailey, the former mayor of Chestertown, came before the town council Tuesday, Sept. 5 as a member of the town’s environmental committee, which she had a major role in creating. A consistent advocate of green policies and practices during her mayoralty, she put through a ban on plastic shopping bags in Chestertown – one of the signature accomplishments of her administration. “I’m not asking for a ban,” she said – but she does have an idea how the town can cut down on the amount of plastic waste it generates.

She began her presentation with a PowerPoint display showing “islands” of plastic trash floating in ocean waters off the Philippines, California, and in Chesapeake Bay. She described the impact on wildlife, killing birds and fish that eat plastic objects, or contaminating their flesh, with chemicals that end up on our dinner plates. She cited the costs to clean up the trash, and to combat the pernicious health effects of the plastic. Only one plastic bottle out of eight is recycled; five million plastic straws are used in the U.S. every day, and they are never recycled, Bailey said.

One of the worst forms of plastic is Styrofoam, which takes centuries to decompose and generates toxic chemicals if used to reheat meals – a real problem, since it is widely used for restaurant take-out containers and hot drink cups.

Bailey offered several simple suggestions for how the town can respond to the epidemic of plastic waste. Sue suggested that the council send a letter to local restaurants asking them to have their serving staff ask customers whether they want a straw with their drinks instead of automatically supplying one – a comparatively recent practice. Also, she said, the restaurants could ask customers whether they want a plastic bag with their takeout orders. If enough customers decline the offers, it could have an impact on waste.

Likewise,  she suggested encouraging people to carry reusable water bottles instead of buying a new plastic bottle of water. People could also take their own carry-out containers to restaurants, reducing the amount of Styrofoam being used. She went on to praise the use of alternative materials, such as hemp – which she said Henry Ford once used to build an experimental car.

Bailey said the environmental committee would supply the council with a sample letter to send to restaurants suggesting the new policies on use of straws and plastic take-out bags.

 

Welcome to Hynson-Ringgold House!

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The Hynson-Ringgold House, the official residence of Washington College’s presidents, was open to the public on First Friday, Sept. 1. The imposing brick home is located at 106 Water Street on the NE corner of Water and Cannon streets. The house is frequently the site for college receptions and dinners as well as garden parties for students, faculty, and guests of the college, but it is rare for the president’s house to be open to the general public.

Teddy Zia, mother of two Washington College graduates, with President Kurt Landgraf and wife, Rita Landgraf.

On Friday, President Kurt Landgraf and his wife, Rita, were at the Water Street entrance to greet the stream of people who took advantage of this rare opportunity to meet the new president and get a glimpse of the elegant 18th-century residence.

Front parlor on the left just inside the front door. Note Washington portrait on the wall.

All the public areas on the first floor, as well as the spacious garden, were open to visitors. For this occasion, the rooms gave a formal impression, as if the house was on its best behavior. Coolers of lemonade and iced tea were available in the room at the foot of the double staircase.

George Washington gazes out over the refreshments in one of the smaller rooms toward the back of the front section of the Hynson-Ringgold House.

The Hynson-Ringgold House has belonged to Washington College since 1944, According to Historic Houses of Kent County, the front portion of the house was built in 1743, with additions and improvements throughout its history.

The name Hynson-Ringgold comes from two early owners of the property – Chestertown Lot #6.  Nathanial Hynson bought the lot in 1735 but did not build on it.  He sold the eastern half of the lot – now the garden – in 1738 and then the western half in 1743 to Dr. William Murphy.  It was Murphy who began building the large brick house that constitutes – much changed and remodeled – the front half of what is now called the Hynson-Ringgold House.  But for whatever reasons, Murphy’s name is not included in the current appellation.  In 1759, Murphy bought the eastern garden half of the property, thus re-uniting the original Lot #6.  Murphy then sold the entire property in 1767 to Thomas Ringgold.  It was Ringgold, a prominent lawyer and businessman, who oversaw the remodeling and expansion that resulted in a house three times larger than the original residence.  It was soon considered the most impressive house in Chestertown.

In the 1930s, the paneling of the East Room was donated to the Baltimore Museum of Art. The building reflects its historical significance with portraits of George Washington in practically all of the downstairs rooms.

A good number of visitors on Friday recalled the house from earlier days, some going as far back as the tenure of President Daniel Z. Gibson(1950-1970), whose young son and two daughters regularly entertained friends in the house. And more than one mentioned the long-standing belief that the house is haunted. In my youth, the story was that a female ghost would accost someone climbing the double staircase and tell them they were going up the wrong side. (I must have gone up the right side since I never saw her.) Other stories told of a  mysterious man’s voice warning them out of certain rooms.

The double staircase from the first to the second floors. It is here that the spectre of the lady “stair monitor” has been reported.

As a bonus, First Friday delivered a cool, clear day — one of the most comfortable of the summer, It undoubtedly encouraged many visitors to walk the extra couple of blocks from the downtown businesses and galleries to get an inside look at one of Chestertown’s most attractive residences.

Photography by Jane Jewell.

View of Chester River from the front porch of Hynson-Ringgold House.

The east side of Hynson-Ringgold as seen from inside the large brick-walled garden. The annual Reception for Seniors at graduation time is held here.

Garden wall at north end of yard

Gate in garden wall

Bench mid-way along brick wall

Cannon Street side of the Hynson-Ringgold house

Front section of Cannon Street side of Hynson-Ringgold house

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Kent Massive Is Back – And It’s Free!

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Kent Massive, Chestertown’s youth-oriented alternative music festival, moves outdoors this year. Better yet, this year’s festival – the seventh annual – is free!

Trevor Janega

Trevor Janega, who has been one of the driving spirits behind the festival since its inception, wrote in an email to the Chestertown Spy, “I like to see this year’s event as a progression as well as coming full circle. Kent Massive started outdoors, but back then we were tucked away in Big Woods. For the last few years we incubated inside of the Garfield Center, and now we’re right out in front of the whole town at the foot of High Street. That, plus having admission be free, will make this Kent Massive the most public it’s ever been, which I hope will further expose this cultural activity and the need for more spaces and events like it.”

This year’s festival is scheduled from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2, at the foot of High Street near the Custom House. Ten acts will take the stage, featuring genres from dance-oriented hip-hop to pop punk, blues-reggae fusion and folk metal. In addition to the music, there will be food supplied by the Smoke Rattle & Roll mobile kitchen, plus a raffle with a variety of prizes.

Audience cheers at the 2016 Kent Massive in the Garfield Center in Chestertown.  Photo by Shore Shots Photography

Also, Janega said, the festival and many of the performers will have merchandise – hats, CDs, t-shirts, etc, — available for purchase. And a variety of Kent County, Maryland, merchandise is available for purchase on the festival website.

Kent Massive has regularly featured local and regional acts. This year’s headliners are Dogs and Day Drinkers and Kent County’s own Kotic Couture, now making his mark in the Baltimore hip-hop scene.  Dogs and Day Drinkers will play from 4:00-4: pm followed by Couture from 4:30-5:00 pm.  DJ Trillnatured, who was originally in the lineup, is unable to attend.

See complete schedule below.

Chestertown’s own Kotic Couture will perform from 4:30-5:00 pm. Photo by Shore Shots PhotographyPho

Dogs and Day Drinkers will play from 4:00-4:30 pm. Photo by Shore Shots Photography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The complete lineup for Kent Massive:

12 -1: Delmarva DJs

1 – 1:20: The Loopstation, experimental alternative folk rock

1:30-1:50: VeVe Marley, acoustic folk go-go blues reggae fusion

2 – 2:20: Leak, the Cricket, singer-songwriter with live looping composition

2:30-2:50: Creative Mind-Sets, positive motivational hip-hop

3-3:20: Veranda, alternative rock

3:30-3:50: The 47, pop punk

4 – 4:30: Dogs & Day Drinkers, folk metal

4:30- 5: Kotic Couture, alternative hip-hop and dance music

5-6: Trillnatured, named 2016’s Best DJ in the Clubs by Baltimore CityPaper

Kent Massive is supported by the Chestertown Recreation Commission and the Kent County Arts Council. Other sponsors contributing monetary or in-kind support include Price Rentals & Events, The Finishing Touch, and A Plus Sanitation. All band photos are courtesy of Shore Shots Photography.  Come on down to the river on Saturday, Sept 2, for a taste of today’s diverse new music!

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