Outcry leads educators to reconsider

Parents oppose limiting comment on school redistricting

Many wish to speak

Two officials confer on need to revise hearings procedure

Howard County

October 31, 2001|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

In response to fiery criticism from parents and community members, school officials are reconsidering their decision to limit the number of speakers at public hearings about proposed high school boundary changes.

Superintendent John R. O'Rourke - who unexpectedly announced the public hearing change at a school board meeting last week - could not be reached for comment yesterday. But board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt confirmed that she and O'Rourke have been discussing the hearings.

"We are working on it," Schuchardt said yesterday. "Exactly when we'll be able to announce it, I don't know."

She said the final plans for public hearings "will accommodate everybody who wants to speak."

That's a marked change from last week's announcement that instead of hearing all who sign up to speak, only five people from each high school district would be chosen by random lottery to speak.

Others would need to call individual board members or submit their comments in writing.

School officials said the motivation behind the change was fairness, and stressed that board members would read all written testimony.

But parents and citizens considered the change anything but fair, and launched a campaign by phone, e-mail and letter to board members and O'Rourke decrying the limitations.

Former Waverly Elementary School PTA President Sue Tompkins wrote to the school board that the move seemed an attempt to "squelch the public's opportunity to speak."

"Yes, there will probably be hundreds of parents/students calling to sign up to speak. Yes, you may hear the same issues over and over again. Yes, it is a long, drawn out process. But more importantly, yes, it is a very necessary process," she said.

The school board will hold two hearings - Dec. 13 and Jan. 15.

"Our intention is to give the community as much opportunity as possible in as fair a way as possible to be heard," said schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan, noting that that was the goal of the original decision. "[But] we've definitely gotten feedback from people and they're taking that feedback into account."

In fact, so many parents and observers were upset about the move that the Boundary Lines Advisory Committee sent a letter Monday to the school board requesting the normal public testimony procedure be reinstated.

The committee was established by O'Rourke to help draw new high school boundary lines to fill the county's 11th high school, Reservoir, which will open next fall. The boundary changes could move 3,000 to 4,000 students.

"Members of the committee were disturbed," said Mary Kay Sigaty, committee co-chair. "It had been a topic of discussion all weekend."

The committee drafted a letter at its Monday night meeting, empathizing with the school board for having to sit through testimony "from what is likely to be a record-breaking turnout."

"However," the committee continued, "citizens have been repeatedly promised all summer long, and as recently as last week at the regional meetings, that they would have an opportunity to be heard."

According to the committee and other individuals, written testimony is no substitute for having your voice heard in a public forum.

"Oral testimony allows someone to get in front of the decision maker and use tone, facial expression, emotion in their testimony which does not always come through in written testimony," parent activist Courtney Watson said yesterday. "People also wonder whether written testimony will be read."

Watson also wrote a letter to school board members and candidly told them that they were in a "no-win situation."

"I know you are criticized no matter what you do," she wrote, "but I have to tell you how stunned I was to see that you will limit public testimony, no matter the topic."

Watson was not the only person shocked.

Many complained that the change was announced during the "Superintendent's Report" - a portion of the biweekly school board meeting that allows O'Rourke to speak on issues he chooses. The topics he discusses are not listed on the agenda - so few, if any, knew that a change in the public hearings might be coming.

Some parents questioned the legality of such a move because school board policy - not the superintendent - governs how long parents can speak at hearings.

Others took issue with the change because: it might limit the number of minorities who speak; would be inconvenient for parents who have to arrange child care, not knowing if they will be able to speak or when; and would allow board members to hear only the breadth of concerns, not many individual parents.

"I would like to hear what other citizens have to say because it helps me to better understand unique issues to their schools and community," June Cofield, who ran for school board in the last election, wrote in a letter to the board.

"This lottery process also does not allow for any citizens who may wish to speak to the county process as a whole instead of just `their' high school," Cofield wrote. "This redistricting process has been the first time that the public has been allowed to truly be involved and I would like to see the process allowed to finish in the public."

Schuchardt said the board may announce the new plan by the next school board meeting, or possibly sooner.

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