As dozens of Howard County parents took their first stab last night at commenting publicly on three official plans being considered for high school redistricting next year, an interesting sidebar emerged: A significant number favored an unofficial fourth plan put together by parents and community members just like themselves.
While about 250 audience members looked on, speaker after speaker stepped up to the lectern in the George Howard Building's Banneker Room and expressed support for the plan they say disrupts about 800 fewer students, decreases crowding at severely cramped River Hill High School, and includes a provision to keep rising sophomores in their home schools.
The "gray" plan, submitted by members of the Fulton and Lime Kiln communities, is based on the "red" plan - one of the three official plans created by the 28-member Boundary Lines Advisory Committee (BLAC) and David C. Drown, the district's coordinator of geographic systems.
Its supporters say it "fixes" issues in the red plan. But others say it includes a major problem: North Laurel's students would continue to attend Atholton, even though it would be three schools away after the opening of the new high school, Reservoir.
Despite that, of the half-dozen or so community-based plans submitted to the Board of Education, the gray plan seems to be gaining the most support.
Helen Eastman, who lives in Howard High School's district, said she supports the gray plan because "it uses the BLAC's hard work as its foundation, it moves the least number of kids as possible and allows rising sophomores to remain in their home schools."
River Hill's Lisa Bankman called the gray plan "the wisest plan with a prudent vision for all of Howard County."
Even the author of another unofficial plan - the River Hill Feeder Fix plan - said last night that he thinks the gray plan is viable.
Also at last night's public hearings, several freshmen from Mount Hebron High School expressed support for the gray plan because it could prevent them from being sent to different schools next year.
Sarah Reardon said she is just one of many rising sophomores - not "just numbers" - who want to stay at their home schools.
"I went to Mount Hebron with a very small group of kids from Ellicott Mills Middle - only 34. If you move rising sophomores, those 34 will be taken back out of Hebron and split between Howard and Centennial," she said.
Several parents of Long Reach High School students spoke against the idea of redistricting the school's boundaries next year, even though board members have repeatedly stressed that they would like to ease crowding there.
None of the plans submitted to the board for consideration - including community-submitted plans - changes boundaries for Long Reach or Glenelg high schools.
"Long Reach is not now, nor will it be, overcrowded in 2002," said James G. Dattaro, a parent of two Long Reach students and an elementary school pupil.
With the school's core capacity of 1,600 students and with many students in the Technology Magnet program off-campus for much of the day, Dattaro said, the school can accommodate its population for at least a few more years.
Dattaro and BLAC member Tom Grobicki were just two of several speakers who encouraged the school board to consider moving the Technology Magnet program from Long Reach to a less crowded school.
Grobicki and several parents from the Atholton High School district were among the few in attendance last night who oppose the gray plan. They say it ignores North Laurel and is selfishly based on the needs of a small group or a single neighborhood.
Atholton speakers told the board that they would support whichever plan it decides is best for the county.
"We urge you to focus on the plans developed by the BLAC to benefit the Howard County community at large," said Atholton PTSA President Rosemary Mortimer, "and not those plans developed to benefit a specific street or individual neighborhood. We truly believe that if you make a good decision for the entire county, it will be a good decision for Atholton."