Joppatowne High principal Doris Williams left the Board of Educationbudget hearing disgusted by what she heard beneath parents' warningsthat they would not tolerate busing their children to Edgewood area schools to relieve crowding in Bel Air.
"Is this a racial issue? Is there any doubt about it?" asked Williams, one of only two blacks in a crowd of 300 parents, as she walked away from the school board's three-hour capital budget meeting Monday night.
But Abingdon resident Michelle Wingate, who opposes shifting her children from Bel Air to Edgewood schools, said parents simply want their children educated in their own neighborhoods.
"Our kids belong in their own community. We have passed on a sense of pride of community to our kids," said Wingate, who has collected 300 signatures on a petition opposing redistricting children out of Bel Air area schools.
School board members insist that redistricting students won't occur. The only reason they explored redistricting this month was to justify their $108 million school construction proposal for 15 new schools through 1997, board members said.
However, the discussion of busing some children from crowded Bel Air-area public schools to the Aberdeen-Edgewood-area schools has dramatized the way I-95 divides Harford County along economic and racial lines.
As principal of Joppatowne High, Williams said she is all too aware how residents north of I-95 view her school and others along Route 40.
No one mentionedrace Monday or during a more heated hearing the previous Wednesday. However, minorities exceed 22 percent of the student body in Route 40-area schools but constitute only 2 percent elsewhere.
Route 40 isheavily populated by military families in neighborhoods near Aberdeen Proving Ground, where household income lags far behind the county average of more than $40,000. The military corridor includes all sevencounty census tracts in which the average is less than $30,000.
Some parents attending Monday's special board meeting said they were worried that shifting their students to schools in the Route 40 area would affect not just the students but also home property values.
"It's scary to me that no one on the board lives in the Abingdon area," Nancee Flynn, a parent, told the board. "It's scary that you have the power to lower my property values by redistricting to the Edgewoodarea."
Throughout both meetings, school officials repeated that there will be no redistricting other than drawing attendance boundaries around each new school. The board favors speeding the construction time-line of 15 proposed schools to keep up with a projected 29 percent increase in the student population by 1996, rather than redistricting students in Bel Air schools to the Edgewood-Joppatowne area.
Deputy School Superintendent Alden H. Halsey reported to the board June 10, 17 and again Monday that any extra class space in Route 40 elementary schools will quickly be filled by new students from those neighborhoods.
"This is not and has never been a redistricting meeting," board president Richard Molinaro said Monday. He also said Wingate's petition and flyers distributed by parents that warned about redistricting were "inflammatory and irresponsible."
However, several speakers at Monday's hearing said they were concerned about their children attending school with students from broken homes or losing new friends who leave when their military parents are transferred.
Recalling her own experience with redistricting, Williams charged that the parents' objections to breaking up the community are simply a pretext.
Her children were twice redistricted with no parental outcry when new schools were built to relieve overcrowding at William S. James Elementary. Children from entire neighborhoods were moved each timeto the new schools, keeping the community intact. "If we're not talking about community, there's got to be another factor here," Williamssaid.
She concluded that racism is fanning the fears of Bel Air parents who don't want their children going to school in the Route 40 corridor.
"This is not a racial issue," Wingate responded as she was leaving the meeting. "The point we're trying to make is that Edgewood students enjoy living in Edgewood, and the Bel Air students should enjoy the same rights."
Although Wingate and many other parents took pains not to disparage the Route 40 corridor, Edgewood High School principal Carl Roberts felt compelled to defend the quality of education in his and other area schools.
"The Board of Education has always and will always be commited to providing a quality education to everyone who lives in Harford County," said Roberts, who takes overtomorrow as the county's secondary education director.
He noted that Havre de Grace High School was recently named a National School of Excellence, and he refuted one parent's contention that south county schools have more than their share of discipline problems.