With a new school year about to begin, Howard County officials face a daunting task: a general redrawing of school district lines that will put a public spotlight on emotional issues, from the racial balance in classrooms to pressure for new schools.
A new elementary school in the crowded northeast part of the county could result, school officials say, but a major change in racial balance isn't likely, even if some children move from outlying schools to Columbia.
"There needs to be a general redistricting," school superintendent Michael E. Hickey said, noting the growing county population outside Columbia.
It'll take months to decide how to fill the approximately 1,000 empty seats in Columbia's older neighborhood schools while booming areas like Ellicott City and Clarksville have too many students and portable classrooms. Decisions will take effect in the next school year.
School officials are pondering several complicating factors as they await the resumption of classes Aug. 30 and compilation of enrollment figures.
One is class size. Reductions that would cut all first- and second-grade classes to a maximum of 19 pupils each by September 2000 could eliminate hundreds of those "empty" classroom seats.
Another is race. African-American children constitute 35 percent to 57 percent of the pupils in eight older Columbia elementaries where white enrollments have dropped sharply over the past decade -- despite a 37 percent increase in white elementary enrollments countywide. Some parents see redistricting as a way to reverse a trend that has concentrated minority children and children from poorer families in certain schools.
"This doesn't reflect the community," County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, said about the racial concentrations. He said he plans to investigate past redistrictings to see if they caused imbalances of race or economic class.
In any change of school district lines, he said, "one thing they ought to look at is socioeconomic factors. I don't want a school overloaded with students on food stamps."
School officials may disappoint Gray.
"We redistrict because of over- and under-capacity. We don't redistrict because of race," said Maurice Kalin, associate school superintendent for planning. He added that any redistricting shouldn't "appreciably change" a school's racial composition.
In Ellicott City, the issue is overcrowding and parents' desire to keep children in neighborhood schools. Many want a new school, as does their county councilman, Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican.
Newly built homes in the northeast area around Ellicott City caused overcrowding, sparking a ban on new development until a solution is found. Hundreds of already-planned homes, grandfathered under the law, will increase the overload.
A county attempt last year to move some northeast county pupils to Phelps Luck and Jeffers Hill elementaries in Columbia sparked such loud protests that school officials canceled the plan.
The county expects a 17 percent enrollment increase over the next 10 years, after having built from one to four schools each of the past 10 years -- including five in the northeast part of the county.
"I think we can show that they can fill all the old seats, and still fill a new building," said Courtney Watson, vice president of an insurance agency and the mother of two Ilchester Elementary pupils.
"There are people who tell you they don't want their children going into Columbia, regardless," Watson said, adding, however that she believes that Columbia's schools are not the real issue. Parents, she said, don't want their children removed from neighborhood schools only to end up in a portable classroom elsewhere.
Hickey says he's thinking of another option to avoid building schools: building additions to some smaller schools like Stevens Forest, in Columbia's Oakland Mills neighborhood.
Gray is adamant that it makes no sense to build new schools if shifting district lines is nearly cost-free. "There's no need to spend money when we don't have to," he said.
He is suspicious of the motives of some who resist redistricting.
"They think their home values will decline if [their children] go to Jeffers Hill," he said about some of those who protested last year's redistricting plan.
Merdon and Watson say they've done their homework. "Even if we do redistricting, we'll still have 800 extra students. I think we have a very good case for a new elementary school," Merdon said.