Acting as peacemaker, County Executive Robert R. Neall summoned the County Council and Board of Education together yesterday morning to hash out differences on a proposed redistricting plan.
Little progress was made on addressing the plan itself, but the meeting did forcea move away from private grumblings to public debate.
The meeting was called to help engineer a truce in a war of wordsthat began last month, when the County Council voted to withhold money for North County High School until the board agreed to consider juggling school boundary lines as an alternative to new school construction.
North County was formed in September by the merger of Brooklyn Park and Andover high schools. The Lindale Junior High building isbeing renovated to house the school; students are attending classes at Andover until the building is ready.
School officials have reacted angrily to what they considered meddling by the council.
Both sides began in a conciliatory tone as they focused on the plan for shifting about 15,000 students throughout the county, at an estimated savings of $80 million to $100 million when compared to the cost of building new schools. The proposal, originally made by County Auditor Joseph Novotny, calls for erasing current school boundaries and drawing new ones to fill empty seats.
Neall sat between School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton and Novotny while leading the discussion. He denied the proposal was a mandate for the school system to redistrict.
"I view it as a suggestion," Neall said. "I would be satisfied if a decision was made that it is not in the cards, that would be OK. Orit was decided that the board would look at it in the future, that would be OK, too.
"I want to make sure we talk to each other. It's a four-way partnership between General Assembly, County Council, county administration and the Board of Education."
Representatives of each of the partners were present, including state delegates Victor Sulin (D-Glen Burnie) and Joan Cadden (D-Brooklyn Park), council members, county budget officials and school board members and staff.
"I'm probably the one to make everybody think that they were connected (redistricting and North County High)," Novotny said apologetically during the meeting. "I am not wed to the idea of redistricting. I am wed to the idea of exploring ways to find new money. My concern is that if we go to the state asking for dollars when we have existing capacity, we will be put at the bottom of the list.
"If I did anythingto step on anybody's toes, it was not my intention. The intent was to find good ways to build schools. I'm willing to forget what was said if we can work together and find dollars.
"Anybody want to holler at me, lynch me or throw darts?" he asked.
Board members listened quietly to what they later described as new attitudes from council members who had once appeared far more antagonistic. Arnold Republican Diane Evans, an outspoken opponent of the board, sat quietly in thefront row during the meeting. Council Chairwoman Virginia Claggett, D-West River, said she wants to end the feud.
While agreeing thereis no mandate to redistrict, Claggett said before the meeting that she supported withholding money for North County until the idea is reviewed.
Pulling from a file of previous redistricting efforts for county schools, Lorton pointed out state board bylaws that must be adhered to before redistricting can be considered. Those criteria include consideration of equity for student course offerings, racial balance, community unity and grade alignments of K-fifth, sixth to eighth and ninth to 12th.
Lorton said he was pleased with the meeting and hopes the truce will last.
"The tone and rationale expressed todaywas considerably different from those expressed in other forums," Lorton said afterward. "Council demonstrated an understanding and respect of other views and needs. At face value, I am very encouraged by that."
Some of that good will, however, seemed to dissipate when Neall, responding to questions from Cadden, said money will be available for North County, but did not commit to any schedule.
"I said wehave enough money in our fund to carry North County High School nextfiscal year," Neall said. "But we've got to solve the redistricting issue. If I still had my seat on the appropriations committee, I would say, 'What happened to the (redistricting plan)? Can you move 15,000 students and eliminate the need for capital projects?' "
After two hours, the end result was an agreement to continue discussing the redistricting plan -- although separately from North County High.
"I want one sheet of music with us singing in four-part harmony," Neall said. "If we don't, we have ourselves to blame."