Redistricting school lines due to begin Public hearings scheduled over three months

Crowding must be eased

Property values, community loyalty will be affected

October 29, 1995|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,Howard County public schools.SUN STAFF

The Howard County school system will begin adjusting high school boundary lines this week, a three-month public process that will affect almost every parent, student and homeowner in the county.

At stake will be community allegiances, longer bus rides, property values and perceptions about school quality.

It's sure to be the most watched -- and criticized -- public process in the Howard school system in years, even though it will relieve severe crowding at several county high schools.

"We know going in that not everyone is going to be pleased by our decisions," said Susan Cook, the school board's chairwoman. "When we do something that pleases some people, it'll upset others.

"Everyone talks about how they understand why we need to do this, and they're sympathetic. They just don't want their kids to be the ones who are moved," Ms. Cook said.

Redistricting is nothing new to Howard. The board annually adjusts boundary lines to accommodate rapidly rising student enrollment and the opening of new schools. The 37,500-pupil system is expected to grow by 10,500 students -- and as many as 13 new schools -- in the next decade, requiring students to be shifted to spread out enrollment.

Nearly every annual round of redistricting sparks some conflict, often pitting neighborhoods against each other as parents bicker over what they perceive to be best for their children's education.

What makes this year different is the scope of the expected changes, which will be much larger than in recent years.

The opening of Long Reach and River Hill schools next fall -- the county's first new high schools in almost two decades -- will require the boundary lines of every high school in the county to be adjusted, forcing at least 1,000 high school students to be transferred.

Thousands of younger students also may be shifted among the school system's 10 high-school districts, affecting where they eventually will attend high school.

Even homeowners without children will be affected, as changes in high-school districts often drive up -- or down -- the demand for homes and their prices in particular neighborhoods.

"Every real estate agent in the county pays close attention during redistricting time -- or they should be if they're doing their job right," said Ginger Clark, a 15-year agent with American Property Inc., who specializes in the area around Dunloggin Middle School. "School districts are one of the most important factors in the demand of a particular neighborhood."

For example, the demand for houses in the Dorsey Hall, Beaverbrook, Longfellow and Hobbit's Glen neighborhoods has fallen since the area was redistricted from Centennial High School to Wilde Lake High School in 1994, real estate agents say.

Centennial is perceived by many to be the county's best high school because of its relatively well-off population and high test scores, while Wilde Lake's reputation has suffered as its population has grown more diverse and its test scores have fallen.

Parents in those neighborhoods fought against the redistricting, arguing that their children should stay at Centennial. But the board approved the boundary line change anyway.

"If they hadn't redistricted, I could be asking $30,000 or $40,000 more for my house," said one Hobbit's Glen homeowner whose house is on the market and who asked that his name not be used. "People had come and looked at the house, but many of the people with kids say they'd rather look across [Route] 108" to the Centennial district.

This year's redistricting is almost guaranteed to bring about similar disputes.

Only broad outlines of the new districts have been revealed, but even that information has caused concern and confusion.

"I was pretty sure I was going to be transferred to Howard [High School], but now I hear that I might go to Centennial. I just don't know," said Mount Hebron High School sophomore Christy Faggio, 14, who lives in the Stonecrest Hills neighborhood of Ellicott City. "I'd rather stay at Mount Hebron because I've already been here two years and made friends."

Although specifics won't be available until meetings Wednesday and Thursday, the general proposal is expected to include:

* Transferring about 800 students from Howard High to the new Long Reach High.

* Transferring about 600 students from Glenelg and Atholton high schools to River Hill High.

* Transferring about 50 students from Mount Hebron High School to either Howard or Centennial high schools.

* Transferring students from the Hopewell neighborhood of Columbia's Owen Brown village from Hammond High School to Oakland Mills High School.

Long Reach and River Hill high schools also will receive students from throughout the county who choose to enroll in the new technology magnet programs at these schools. More than 400 )) eighth-graders have expressed interest.

The most controversial decision may be whether to move current sophomores for their junior and seniors years.

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