School redistricting has parents fuming Boundary adjustments are coming to a head

March 28, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Kris Antonelli, Howard Libit and Jackie Powder contributed to this article.

Anne Darr's three children will likely attend eight public schools by the time they graduate from high school, though the family's Howard County address hasn't changed for nearly two decades.

It's called school redistricting, and it's an explosive issue in the suburbs.

"It's to the point where I need a refrigerator magnet to remember where I should send my kids that day," Darr says with a sigh about transporting her children, Clare and Suzy Herlihy, who are in school.

Booming development in the Darrs' Clarksville neighborhood has forced Howard school officials to draw new district lines every few years to juggle enrollment and minimize crowding.

"It used to make me angry," Darr says. "Now I'm just tired of moving. It's the cumulative effect that's worse than anything else."

Throughout the Baltimore region, school boundary line adjustments that will affect students in the fall are coming to a head this spring. In each jurisdiction, school officials face bitter opposition that can range from parents walking picket lines to sophisticated counter-proposals that shift the redistricting burden to others.

The worries are many: children floundering in unfamiliar settings, communities splitting apart, new schools not measuring up academically, property values shrinking as homes are slotted into less-desirable school districts.

"It's the parents who are much more resistant to change than kids. Kids are so resilient," says Patti Caplan, a spokeswoman for Howard County schools. "We hear the same things every single year. Sometimes I want to say to them, 'Just suck it in, for Pete's sake.' "

Howard school officials approved a plan Thursday to redistrict -- nearly 900 students in the western and southeastern parts of the county, but only after weeks of contentious debate, including a public hearing attended by more than 200 that pitted neighbor against neighbor.

In neighboring Carroll County, where two elementary schools will open in the next two years, redistricting could affect more than 2,500 students.

There, parents have come to public hearings armed with detailed research and professional-looking posters and charts to persuade school officials not to move their children. The final decision is expected next week.

"We moved here six years ago, anticipating that our kids would go to Carrolltowne [Elementary]," says Sue Emerick, a parent from the Carroll Highlands neighborhood.

"The new dividing line cuts right through our community," she says. "I feel it will tear apart the community cohesiveness and affect property values as well."

Baltimore County school officials, who released a proposal this week to redistrict almost 600 students at eight schools, are hearing similar sentiments from parents.

But some Baltimore County parents seem pleased to hear that their children will move. Parents from a northwestern part of the county have picketed the county office for years, seeking to get their children moved back to Franklin Middle, the neighborhood school they were forced to leave in 1990. The parents are pleased that a plan the school board will vote on in June could include that move.

Most boundary line changes affect elementary and middle school students, smaller schools that are filled at a rapid rate by development.

But high schools also are affected, and those moves can be excruciating: Teen-agers are forced to leave the special friendships of adolescence and abandon tight-knit athletic teams. Their parents, with an eye toward college admission, fight to keep their children in desirable high schools.

Maureen Cisna, 15, of Elkridge was set to attend nearby Howard High when school officials redistricted her last year to Long Reach High, a new school.

"I play a lot of sports and I wanted to go to Howard because I knew the coaches," Maureen says. "I didn't want to get sent to Long Reach where no one even knew me. Only, like, 10 kids [from my middle school] went with me. My street was the borderline."

But, having been redistricted twice before already, she was used to changing schools.

"By the time I went to seventh grade, I was back with all my old friends from the first school," she says. "But it was really strange, really weird. Everyone had changed."

In Anne Arundel County, the issue has became so contentious that the county executive has stepped in. Saying that the school board is paralyzed by the problems that come with redistricting, County Executive John G. Gary proposed that the county stop approving new subdivisions near crowded schools.

Part of the controversy in Anne Arundel involved the possibility that students who were to attend Arundel Senior High would instead be forced to go to South River High in Edgewater, considered less desirable by some parents.

Home prices are continually an issue for suburbanites, who often do extensive research into schools -- including a principal's reputation and years of standardized test scores -- before beginning the search for a new home.

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