Panel urges school system redistricting

Equity committee says open-enrollment freeze should follow

47-page report presented

70 proposals made

Robey believes cost would be `millions'

March 14, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school system should redistrict countywide beginning in 2002 and freeze open enrollment for three years afterward, a school reform panel recommended in its final report yesterday.

The proposals are among 70 by the Leadership Committee on School Equity, a 23-member group that had studied county schools since November. Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and County Executive James N. Robey created the panel in October in response to perceived inequities in the school system.

Equity moved to the forefront last fall after The Sun reported that Columbia parents dissatisfied with Wilde Lake Middle School were paying $37,800 to bus their 63 children to the new Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton. They used the open-enrollment policy to switch schools, noting concerns about academic quality.

The committee's 47-page report covers issues including open enrollment, redistricting and the high percentage of new teachers assigned to focus schools, which get extra resources to combat low test scores, such as the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.

Speaking about the report to a standing-room-only crowd in the county government building in Ellicott City yesterday, Robey said: "I think this confirms what we all knew -- that there are inequities in Howard County education."

No cost estimate was made for the recommendations, but Robey said they would add up to "millions" of dollars and could not be done in one year.

The committee's report called for a more comprehensive and predictable redistricting process than the current "piecemeal approach" of annually changing where some students attend school.

Committee members recommended that the school system analyze school boundaries and develop a countywide plan that would create "as stable a path from kindergarten through high school as possible."

The plan should be phased in beginning in 2002, when a new high school will open in Fulton, the report said.

The committee also recommended a moratorium on open enrollment for three years after the county redistricting.

Subcommittee chairwoman

"We wanted each school community to get to know each other," said Mary Kay Sigaty, chairwoman of the subcommittee that studied open enrollment and redistricting.

The committee also advised the school board to re-evaluate the open-enrollment policy by the end of that three-year period. Committee members debated the merits of the school system's open-enrollment policy, which allows parents to send children to any school with space as long as they provide transportation.

The report notes that seven of the nine elementary focus schools have the largest number of schoolchildren leaving through open enrollment.

Although the report says that "all schools should be protected from open enrollment" for three years after redistricting, Sigaty said the group realizes that open enrollment might be necessary for some students. The school system should consider these requests on a case-by-case basis, she said.

`Definite reasons'

"There are very definite reasons why open enrollment would have to continue," Sigaty said. "Child care comes to mind; so does the health and safety of students."

School board Chairman Sandra H. French said she read a draft of the report last week and would discuss its findings with other board members.

"I think a lot of the recommendations are good ones, and they echo things that board members have suggested over the years but for whatever reason did not get implemented," she said.

Hickey said the report, along with reports by the County Council's committee on school equity and Howard County -- a United Vision, would help direct the school system's steps.

He called the Leadership Committee's report "the most significant citizens' document we've had in the school system." But he said he is not convinced that the predictable school boundaries the committee wants are possible.

Attempt favored

"I'm not sure if they understand all of the ramifications of things that affect redistricting," Hickey said. "But I think it ought to be tried."

He also thinks the school system might want to freeze open enrollment afterward, as recommended.

Hickey said he would analyze the committee's findings and report to the school board in May. He plans to give no recommendations about how to proceed, noting his impending retirement.

But French said she expected direction from Hickey.

"He's superintendent until June 30," she said.

Council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said she is trying to set up a meeting between the County Council and the Leadership Committee next month to discuss the report. Later, she said, she hopes to have the council talk to the school board.

"Clearly, there will be funding implications in the long haul," she said. "Until they [the school board] have taxing authority, we have a role."

Staff research urged

C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said he has asked council staff members to comb through the report to identify which recommendations have financial implications.

"I'd like to get the council committed to some of the goals," he said.

June D. Cofield, a member of the County Council's school equity committee -- made up of parents -- sees common ground between her group's report and the Leadership Committee's findings. Cofield, a Columbia resident, said she is pleased to see "confirmation" of the council committee's work.

"It just lets us know that the citizens in this county, the parents in this county, were on the mark," Cofield said.

Sun staff writer Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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