School plans bring unease

Redistricting panel considers moving up to 3,000 students

Up to 2,000 at Atholton

Critics say process is flawed

blame partisan motives

October 15, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Under proposed redistricting plans for Howard County, the new Reservoir High School won't be only the one filled with new faces next year.

If either of two suggestions from a citizens advisory committee about how to successfully open Reservoir High in Fulton in the 2002-2003 school year - and relieve high school crowding in the county - are accepted by parents and school board members, Atholton High School could see the reassignment of most of its student body.

The Boundary Lines Advisory Committee unveiled the rough outlines of the "orange" and "black" redistricting plans last week. Each could send as many as 3,000 Howard County high school students to different schools next fall.

The committee might release the plans at its meeting tonight.

Reservoir High School will be in Fulton, in the southern end of the county. The plans involve shifting students in almost every county high school to relieve enrollment pressures in the north.

When committee members released the outlines of the plans, they told the community that Atholton, north of Route 32 in Columbia, the high school closest to the new school, might feel the biggest impact with up to 2,000 students moving in and out.

Under the orange plan, nearly 80 percent of Atholton's current students would be sent to Reservoir. Although many of them would be replaced by students redistricted from other schools, the boundary changes would leave Atholton full of new students and with a junior class of 72 students.

"I'm flabbergasted," said Patricia Laidig, president of Atholton's Booster Association. "I think the community needs to know that this is what it means when you say that Atholton will be the most drastically affected. I feel very strongly that as soon as it was found out that that many students would be moved from Atholton, then the plans should have been thrown out."

Joan Lancos, one of two representatives from Atholton on the committee, said the redistricting panel is aware of the potential mass exodus from Atholton.

"There is no easy fix," she said. "There are pluses and minuses for Atholton under each of the plans that are being presented."

Lancos said she and co-representative Lisa Nickell believe that if either of the plans is accepted, then the Board of Education ought to relax its strict rule against moving juniors among existing schools.

To keep Atholton stable, board members should treat Atholton like a new school, Lancos said, and allow juniors from other high schools to be redistricted in - in the same way juniors are being moved to Reservoir.

"We cannot operate a junior class with only 72 students and provide the programs that would be available for juniors in the rest of the county," she said.

But, Lancos said, both Atholton representatives have decided not to take an official position on either plan because there are too many varied opinions in the community about what is the best move for Atholton students.

"We feel that our role is to provide information to the community and to develop a plan that works for the county," she said.

But some observers are questioning the redistricting process, wondering whether committee members' advocacy for the schools they represent is taking precedence over the interests of the county as a whole.

Flaws in the process, some say, might have contributed to problems with the plans, including the mass migration at Atholton High.

"I see an inherent conflict in the design of the committee," school activist Courtney Watson said. "How does a member appointed to represent a specific school balance those needs with doing what is best for the entire county? I give the members tremendous credit for the time and energy they have put into the process, but are they in a position to make decisions which are best for the overall school system?"

According to committee co-chairman Jerry Bialecki, the answer is yes.

"The process is under question, that's for sure," he said. "Is it working? That's a very difficult question to answer. There's a lot of components. But I think we're doing our very best to evaluate the plans that have been proposed, based on the requirements."

The committee's original task was to come up with a list of requirements, or guidelines, that school officials would use to redraw high school boundaries. After the requirements were drafted, board members asked the committee to go further and actually help draw the lines.

Bialecki said that committee members struggled at first with keeping their consideration of individual school or neighborhood needs to a minimum when evaluating the merits of boundary change suggestions.

"I'm still not sure we're there yet," he said. "I have seen greater effort than I've seen in the past. I think we're making good progress in that regard."

Committee member Mary Catherine Cochran said that future committees should be appointed to represent the county, not individual schools.

She suggested that the committee be smaller, with permanent members serving staggered terms.

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