Board imposes limits on hearings

High school district meetings to cap number of speakers

October 26, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The coming redistricting of Howard County high schools is so extensive that school officials have decided to limit the number of speakers at two public hearings about proposed boundary changes.

Instead of hearing all speakers listed on a sign-up sheet, officials will choose speakers by random lottery based on the high school district in which they live, Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said at a school board meeting last night.

Five people will be selected from every high school district and will be allowed to speak for three minutes.

"When you're talking about something of this magnitude, you're talking about thousands of people who want to comment," O'Rourke said. "The scale is such that at one of the last committee meetings, several hundred people attended just as observers. That level of attention indicates really strong interest."

The school board will hold two public hearings. The boundary changes could move 3,000 to 4,000 students to the new Reservoir High School, which opens next school year.

A citizens advisory committee worked for seven months and developed three proposals - labeled "red," "orange" and "black."

A recent unveiling of the three plans drew hundreds of parents and community members, filling auditoriums at two county high schools. Officials anticipate that at least as many people will show up at the public hearings.

School district spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the goal of the temporary change in meeting format is fairness.

"The bottom line here is this is a huge redistricting process," Caplan said. "We could have public hearings that run all day for an entire week and probably never hear from everybody who wants to testify. So to be as equitable as we possibly can, we're implementing this policy."

If board members used the old procedure, "we would probably be here over eight hours," O'Rourke said.

The new plan works like this:

At 7 p.m., a public lottery will be held to determine the order in which each high school will be addressed. A separate lottery will select five speakers and five alternates from a list of people wanting to speak.

If a speaker is not present when his or her name is called, an alternate will be called.

After all schools have been addressed, speakers will be called randomly until 10:30 p.m., when the hearing will end.

O'Rourke said this process encourages parents to submit their opinions in writing - which he said is advantageous because they don't have to conform to time or space limits. Board members will read all written testimony, O'Rourke said.

Speaker sign-up for the Dec. 13 hearing will begin Nov. 26. Sign-up for the Jan. 15 hearing will begin Dec. 26. Additional names will be accepted between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. the day of each hearing.

The school board will accept written opinions and comments via telephone until 4 p.m. Jan. 23.

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