Carroll County residents had their last opportunity to speak on a contentious redistricting plan -- one that would move about 3,700 students -- at a crowded public hearing at Westminster High School last night.
The five-member school board, which must vote to adopt, revise or reject the proposal, is expected to take action March 27.
Several board members attended last night's hearing. About 300 people also attended, with more than 100 asking to speak.
Even with the three-minute limit for speakers, it promised to be a long night.
"What we are hearing are the voices of people who have watched the redistricting process and are now educated to the point where they can reason through this process," said C. M. Wheeler of Woodbine. "Let us all work together and find a solution."
The 24-member redistricting committee has scaled back its proposal to move more than 4,300 students and has eliminated several segments that rankled parents and divided communities. Many speakers complained of plans that they said divided neighborhoods and uprooted children.
"The children are nothing more than numbers to this board," said Mark Hurley of Finksburg.
The revised plan calls for moving about 3,700 students, mainly to fill three new schools: Shiloh Middle, opening in Hampstead in the fall; Century High, opening in South Carroll next year; and a proposed second high school for Westminster, expected to open in 2002.
Wade Opper complained that his two sons would be in five schools within six years without having changed their address.
Several speakers offered intricate counterproposals.
"You are not changing enrollment numbers, just the children," said Debbie Hockett, whose South Carroll subdivision will be split. "You can't change school lines with every new development."
The plan has generated widespread dissatisfaction and outspoken criticism, much of it from those who say Westminster does not need a $38 million high school.
But Donna Moffett, president of Sandymount Elementary PTA, said, "It is irrational to say we don't need a high school. Aren't you paying attention? Didn't you just walk past portables?"
The county commissioners are moving forward with construction of the high school, but many parents have said the school will open far below its enrollment capacity. Many argue the redistricting is a ploy to fill those empty seats.
Westminster High is 250 students over its 2,000 capacity.
Moffett said the numbers are deceptive because the school might have room for students but not for facilities, such as lockers.
"Don't take our high school away," she said. "You gave Century [to South Carroll]. We want ours."
Two petition drives are under way. One has at least 300 signatures in favor of the new school. The other has about 600 asking the county commissioners to re-examine the decision to build.
"There is large support for another Westminster High," said Susan Ullrich, co-chairwoman of Citizens for Schools. "There is a lot of false information going around. People are misconstruing data and working their own numbers."
Jeannie Nichols of Sykesville said she supports relieving crowding at Westminster but wants to see other options before the county spends $38 million on construction.
"If we build Century for 1,600, there will be no crowding at Westminster for at least four years," she said.
Wheeler asked that the redistricting committee, which he called "most capable and unbiased," be allowed to make the final decision.
"If it is unshackled, this committee can take what it has learned and run with it," Wheeler said. "Right now, the wrong people are running the show."
County Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier has said the committee set "unrealistic parameters."
"They started off in the wrong direction, and it sort of snowballed," she said.
Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge has said that the redistricting proposal is unwieldy and unworkable and that school officials should let the commissioners try to resolve the problem.
"They should stop, leave well enough alone, and let us figure it out," Gouge said Wednesday.