County schools sorting options

Enrollment rise, ebb create hard choices

April 11, 1999|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

For Anne Arundel County school officials, there will be no cheap or painless solutions. No detour past redistricting thousands of county school children.

Enrollment changes over the next 20 years will require Superintendent Carol S. Parham and the school board to build additions to some schools, construct a high school, shift at least 900 students into different schools or do all three.

According to an independent consultant's report presented to the board in February, by 2007 Anne Arundel County will be home to 23,700 high school students -- 1,400 more than in 1997. That number will decline to 21,800 10 years later.

Middle school enrollment likely will follow the same pattern, peaking at 19,110 by the 2007 school year, and then declining to 19,050 in 2017.

If Parham and the board ignore the implications of those projected numbers much longer, students in at least three high schools and two middle schools would be attending classes in split shifts for as long as a decade, said Thomas W. Rhoades, director of the county schools' office of programs and planning.

"There would be so many students in the schools that schools could not handle them all at the same time," Rhoades said.

Split shifts would play havoc with after-school activities and the already complicated schedules many families live by.

Redistricting, some say, tramples on two things sacred in many people's lives: their children and their investments in their homes. School board members know that the topic brings out crowds of poster-waving, screaming parents and sparks bitter feuds.

Four years ago, when the board tried to shift a group of students out of the mostly white Arundel High School feeder system and into the mostly minority Meade High School, angry parents claimed the move amounted to segregation. The group to be moved was racially mixed, but would have put more minorities at Meade. The parents filed suit in court and won. The board finally dropped its appeal.

Parham and the board say they want to do everything they can to avoid new outbursts.

"I want the public to understand this, ask questions and to give me feedback that I will consider when I make my recommendation to the board," Parham said. "The bottom line is that I am going to have to make a hard decision, which, no matter what I do, will not please everyone."

Parham and her staff have scheduled briefings to inform parents and answer their questions about the enrollment predictions. Despite this measure, last week only about 40 people attended highly publicized meetings at Annapolis and Arundel high schools.

Those few parents who did speak said it was impossible for them to take a stand because while the report states numbers of students who might move from high school feeder systems, it does not specify from which neighborhoods they would be taken. School officials said it would cost too much and take too long to figure out which neighborhoods would change schools before they can figure out what option they are going to use.

Rhoades said he was not surprised by the low turnout.

"My guess is that when September and October roll around, the board room is going to be filled with people who said they knew nothing about this," Rhoades said. "I don't think these problems seem real to people until it happens to their child."

The briefings -- which Rhoades leads -- will continue this week -- at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Severna Park High School and the same time Wednesday at North County High School. School officials also have set up a hot line that parents can call, and they are posting information about the report and the briefings on the schools Web site --

Copies of the consultants' report have been sent to all public libraries, and parents may tune to cable Channel 99 at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. each Monday in April for a summary of the report.

Parham is to consider the comments of parents during these briefings before she makes her recommendation to the board May 19. The board will hold more public hearings and a workshop to discuss that recommendation before it decides whether to accept it June 16. Final plans, concluded in September and October, will go into effect in the fall of 2000.

None of the possible fixes the consultants envision for dealing with the county's projected changes in school population is without cost and angst.

The cheapest fix -- redistrict middle and high school students to fit into existing buildings -- would cost $1.2 million over 20 years and shift 6,050 students.

Any other solution will cost at least that.

The board could keep most students in their current assigned schools by building additions and a 1,125-pupil middle school. Nine hundred pupils would have to be shifted, but this option would cost $84.3 million above the bottom line $1.2 million.

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