Hoping to save $50 million or more in construction costs, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall and the County Council tentatively endorsed an auditor's controversial proposal yesterday to redistrict schools.
County budget officer Dennis Parkinson told the councilthat the administration supports exploring shifting as many as 15,000 students to different schools with excess class space.
The idea of further delaying the North County scrapping the oft-delayed school, as proposed Tuesday by council auditor Joseph Novotny,set off a sharp debate suggesting how redrawing school boundaries could pit communities against one another throughout the county.
"I think redistricting is a very emotional idea that we've never been able to accomplish," said state Delegate Joan Cadden, D-Brooklyn Park, a former Board of Education member who attended yesterday's council budget hearing.
But the council took a unanimous straw vote to tie up money for North County High School and other expansion projects until the school board considers whether redistricting would be a cheaper way to relieve overcrowding.
"If it takes the fact that some of you people aren't going to be elected again, we've got to do it," Novotny said before the vote.
Redistricting would probably take more than a year, but Parkinson told the council that the county should consider the best way to cut costs.
"The administration would strongly support a critical review of redistricting," he said. "If you can save $50 million, it's an endeavor we'd want to consider."
School system planning and construction supervisor Michael Raible warned the council of the political uproar they would face from redistricting.
"The first people enlisted in the war would be you folks with your constituents talking to you," he said.
Consulting a computer simulation of how redistricting might work, Raible addressed each council member and told Please see SCHOOLS, Page 4SCHOOLSContinued from Page 1them how students in their districts would be affected.
Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, could face school closures in her district due to excess space.
Some students from Shipley's Choice Elementary School, represented by Councilwoman Diane Evans, R-Severna Park, would be transferred to Old Mill Elementary School in Mill.
Councilman David Boschert, D-Crownsville, could get complaints from students forced to leave overcrowded Meade Senior High School.
Raible was in the middle of telling Council Chairwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River, that some children in the Crofton area could be "sent south" when Lamb interrupted him by loudly clearing her throat.
"Ahem," the former school board member began. "I think you're playing dirty pool."
Raible protested, "I think you all should know what we're facing because we're all in this together."
Ultimately, the independent school board must decide whether redistricting is a good idea. But the council clearly intended to apply financial leverage.
"I've got 80 million to 100 million reasons why the school board should not only consider redistricting but do it," said Novotny, who estimated the savings at twice Parkinson's $50 million figure.
"We've got to start telling people out there there's not going to be schools remodeled, there's not going to be schools built unless we do something like this," he said. "Where's the money going to come from? Certainly not the state when we have (excess) capacity."
Putting so muchmoney in the council's contingency fund -- which requires the administration to justify spending -- would be an unprecedented move to limit the school board's independence.
"They're putting us in a really untenable place," school board budget officer Jack White said afterthe hearing.
Raible said the school system's only option would be"not to ask for money."
Arguing against redistricting, Raible said that the excess class capacity will only last through the late 1990s and that transferring students would be too disruptive.
But withschool enrollment down about 10,000 students from its peak of 74,000a decade ago, Lamb said it makes no sense to build new high schools while the population of older students is declining and the youngest students are growing in number.
Overall, most county schools are filled to around 90 percent of their capacity, Raible said.
But he added that there are wide disparities, from Meade Heights Elementary School at 120 percent of capacity to Brockbridge Elementary School, which is no more than 65 percent full. Both schools are in Boschert's district.
Councilman George Bachman, D-Linthicum, whose constituents were promised a North County high school three years ago, said that Novotny's "grandiose" plan would only further delay the inevitable need to build the school.
"To hold that money until the school board redistricts -- you and I know that won't happen," he told Novotny.
Evans, Bachman and Councilman Edward Middlebrooks, D-Severn, saidthey would not want to link the school board's spending power to a promise to redistrict.
But Lamb led her colleagues in unanimously endorsing Novotny's scheme, at least until they have to take an official vote and adopt a budget Friday.
"This is big, big bucks," Lamb said. "The state is getting out of the (school construction) business. It has to come from the taxpayers of Anne Arundel County."
Middlebrooks, whose district also overlaps part of the planned North County High School boundaries, said keeping down taxes is the most important goal.
"The concerns of Anne Arundel County outweigh any councilmanic seat," he said. "The kids will adjust and the parents will adjust. If it's going to save that kind of money, I think the taxpayers, when all is said and done, will appreciate it."