State board may overrule redistricting Final arguments today in challenge to 1995 plan to move students

Seven Oaks activists hopeful

Panel's decision may throw out county guidelines

March 25, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

As the Anne Arundel school board considers whether to set new school attendance boundaries in several parts of the county, a potentially larger redistricting issue hangs over the schools.

The state Board of Education could throw out the 1995 plan that is the basis for what the local board is considering. The state board is to hear final arguments today on a challenge to the older plan by Seven Oaks community activists.

Georgia B. Powell, an administrative law judge, recommended in February that the state school board reject the 1995 plan, saying it was adopted illegally.

The state board could take a few months to rule. Meanwhile, the county board is left to wonder what will happen to redistricting decisions it makes next month.

"We're certainly concerned that the state board could invalidate the entire redistricting plan," said P. Tyson Bennett, lawyer for the county school board.

In her opinion, Powell criticized the school board for changing its ground rules for redistricting at the same time a board-appointed citizens panel was working on a plan to change school boundaries.

During a week of hearings and in mountains of documents, there was conflicting information on precisely what that committee understood about the policies and changes in them.

Bennett is expected to argue today that testimony shows that the citizens panel had the appropriate information and that Powell "just made a mistake" and wrongly concluded that the redistricting plan was adopted illegally.

David Douglas, a Seven Oaks resident and lawyer for his neighbors, said that is not so.

"There is a price to pay for illegality," he said. "If we thought we were wrong, we would have dropped this a long time ago."

Seven Oaks children attend Odenton Elementary, which is part of the Arundel High School feeder system. The 1995 plan moved them to Meade Heights Elementary at Fort Meade -- which has the highest student turnover rate in the county -- and into the Meade High School feeder system.

Powell did not rule on most of the issues the Seven Oaks parents raised, including racial balance. Students from racially diverse Seven Oaks would be moved from a predominantly white high school to one that is 51 percent minority.

Instead, she said that shifting only 75 students out of Arundel High School was unreasonable given the crowding there. Powell found that the plan to add Seven Oaks children to Meade Heights Elementary, which was on a list of academically troubled schools, "contradicts sound educational and reasonable policy" because the school already had too many demands on its resources.

"Think of the potential backlash if the state board throws out the entire 1995 redistricting plan," Bennett said. "There were many, many happy people."

Among them were South Shore Elementary School parents, who fought successfully to keep their children out of the Annapolis High School feeder system and in Old Mill schools.

The state board could limit its ruling to the Meade feeder system, but that redistricting ripples through a dozen feeder systems, Bennett said.

For example, Severn Elementary students were shifted from the Old Mill High School feeder system to Meade High School under the 1995 plan, which becomes effective in August. Despite their unhappiness with the move, the parents did not appeal.

Now, their best immediate hope of staying in Old Mill is a Seven Oaks victory.

"The hearing examiner thinks the whole process was tainted," Richard Kovelant, lawyer for the Severn elementary parents group. "If the process was flawed, it was flawed for everybody."

Pub Date: 3/25/97

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