Five years ago, Howard County school officials transformed their vocational education program into the glitzier technology magnet program, to parents' and educators' cheers.
Now, parents and officials are beginning to debate the future of the program, concerned that it is taking up space in crowded or growing high schools, that it costs too much and that it might not be adequately serving the students who are enrolled in it.
"I hear so much about the tech magnet," Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said. "It's one of those issues that, no matter what we do, it keeps coming back on the table."
The school board is scheduled to discuss the technology magnet program at tomorrow night's meeting, having asked staff members to bring a "fact sheet" about the program, its costs, benefits and challenges.
"There are some problems with it," said board member Laura Waters, noting that parents have mentioned a lack of seats in the program for all who want to attend, a lack of space in the schools to house it, accusations of illegal waivers granted to students who drop out of the program but stay enrolled in the magnet schools, and the high cost of transportation.
It costs about $1.3 million to transport technology magnet students to and from home, the two high school sites and the Applications and Research Laboratory - almost half as much as it costs to operate the entire program.
The latest issues were brought to light by the work of a citizens committee asked to help devise plans for next year's high school redistricting, which is set to move about 2,000 high school students to other schools.
The Boundary Lines Advisory Committee - in its attempt to move students equitably - unearthed a little-known consequence of the magnet program: As high schools grew, magnet slots edged out neighborhood students from their home schools.
Students choose the technology magnet program in eighth grade. If accepted - by a random lottery - they attend Long Reach or River Hill high school, depending on which side of U.S. 29 they live. About 100 students a year from other high school districts attend each of the two high schools; about 25 each from inside the boundaries of Long Reach or River Hill can enroll.
Over four years, that means about 400 students are filling seats in River Hill and 400 in Long Reach who would be attending other high schools.
When the boundary lines committee began redrawing the lines, it found that hundreds of students would have to be moved out of River Hill to accomplish the fair redrawing.
Some in the community have suggested moving the magnet program to another, less-populated high school, such as Oakland Mills or Atholton. Others have tossed around the idea of placing it at every high school, similar to the way the old vo-tech school operated.
At a meeting last week at River Hill High School, about 40 parents signed a petition to have the program moved from the school if there aren't enough seats for neighborhood children next school year.
Parents at high schools that have been suggested for taking over the program noted the River Hill parents' readiness to dump the tech magnet. If affluent River Hill parents don't want the costly, space-draining program, they asked, why would they?
Then rumors arose that Long Reach High School Principal David Bruzga might secretly want to rid himself of the program, noting the school's low SAT scores despite having the program's "best and brightest" enrolled there.
"There are a lot of people who are questioning the tech magnet completely independent of this," said Caryn Lasser, who lives in River Hill village and organized last week's meeting.
Bruzga said the rumors about Long Reach are false.
"If you eliminate the out-of-district kids, over the course of four years we'd have 400 less kids," he said, noting the school's increasing crowding. "I've said that would be a reasonable alternative to regulate our enrollment."
Bruzga said he sees no correlation between SAT scores and the tech magnet and takes issue with the idea that the program attracts only the "best and brightest."
"I have no feeling whatsoever about us being a magnet school. I don't like to see it so limited, however. I think it's unfortunate that we have to shut some kids out of the program," he said. "If we did have it at all the schools, theoretically, more students could be in it."
The recent criticism is surprising, considering the popularity of the tech magnet program.
Instead of the cosmetology, construction and car repair of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the new program ushered in an era of biotechnology, visual and data communications, and energy, power and transportation just right for the 1990s.
Every year, students agonize over a long waiting list for a spot in tech magnet. Maryland's assistant superintendent in charge of technology, Katharine M. Oliver, has said Howard's program stands out. Saeed Salehi, an independent evaluator of technical educational programs across the country, said Howard's is "one of the best."