Villages tie school woes to board

Six associations sign letter calling for election by districts

`There's a disconnect'

Move to support bill follows concerns over academic problems

November 18, 1999|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Academic and image problems facing some of Columbia's older schools may be tied to a lack of representation on the Howard County school board, says a village leader lobbying to change the way the board is elected.

Tonight, Joshua Feldmesser plans to present state legislators a letter signed by six of Columbia's 10 community associations supporting a bill that would authorize single-district school board elections.

The five members of the school board, none of whom lives east of U.S. 29, are elected countywide.

Under the bill, members would represent particular districts and be selected by that district's voters -- a move the school board strongly opposes.

"At the size the county is right now, the school board doesn't think of any individual schools -- any individual communities -- as their constituents," Feldmesser, the Wilde Lake Village Board chairman, said yesterday. "And, in turn, we as constituents don't see a representative that we can go to on school issues. There's a disconnect between the school board and the residents in the community."

At issue are concerns over lagging academic performance at some of Columbia's older schools, the concentration of minority students in some of those schools and the disparity in technology, textbooks and teacher quality between older and newer schools.

Feldmesser said he believes that those issues, among others, would be better addressed with single-district school board members.

The village boards of Dorsey's Search, Harper's Choice, Oakland Mills, Owen Brown, Town Center and Wilde Lake have signed the letter, Feldmesser said.

The Long Reach board supports school board districts, but intends to draft its own letter.

Passage of the proposed bill, which Del. Frank S. Turner, an east Columbia Democrat, plans to introduce in the next General Assembly session, is questionable because two of the county's three state senators have expressed doubts about it.

The county delegation will hear testimony on proposed legislation at 7: 30 tonight at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

The Columbia Council, the 10-member elected body that governs the Columbia Association, is in the midst of a debate over what role it should play in the education arena.

The association's draft budget includes $100,000 for improvements at county schools, but a two-member task force has recommended against using the funds for that purpose.

It has recommended creating a citizens' task force on education instead.

The council has yet to take up school board districts, but Earl Jones, Oakland Mills' representative on the council, supports the idea.

"I don't think that we have been fully represented, particularly here in Columbia, and that we are getting our fair share," he said. "With this, at least you would be in a position to hold someone accountable that is directly affected and is directly a part of the community of which we're speaking."

In addition to signing Feldmesser's letter, the Oakland Mills board voted to draft a separate letter to Turner addressing specific village concerns on education.

Armed with voting data and colorful maps, Feldmesser has made a presentation to every village board except River Hill.

He contended that east and west Columbia -- and parts of southern Howard County -- did not support the incumbent school board members at the ballot box.

"The people they're voting for are not getting into office," he said.

Feldmesser said the result is five school board members elected by voters in other parts of the county.

"Literally, if you would highlight the precincts that they won, all five maps look exactly the same," he said.

In Hickory Ridge, the board voted against signing Feldmesser's letter, in part because of concerns about politicizing the school board, said Jane Parrish, the village manager.

Kings Contrivance also declined to sign.

School Board Chairwoman Karen B. Campbell has called Turner's proposal a "bad idea."

Another board member, Sandra H. French, said she is worried it could lead to a fractured, parochial board.

Columbia Association President Deborah O. McCarty said the school problem should be looked at as a whole -- not a "piecemeal basis."

"I really don't have a strong sense of [school board districts] at this point," McCarty said. "It may be a perfectly good proposal. [But] my hope is that we're going to look at everything."

"I think there are good points and bad points," said Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Long Reach's council representative, who originally proposed that the Columbia Association include $500,000 in its draft budget for county schools.

"I think clearly the eastern part of the county is not well-represented on the school board. I'm concerned, however, that people not break down into this regionalization. We're one county. So I really don't know how I feel this plays out in the end."

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