Redistricting plan raises questions

O'Rourke proposal for high school lines surprises parents

Skepticism about process

Superintendent says new map combines best ideas

January 13, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Howard schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke has offered fresh answers to the county's high school redistricting puzzle, but his new boundary lines plan has so far served mostly to invite new questions.

All over the county - from Mount Hebron in the north to Oakland Mills in the center - parents and community members are picking their respective bones with the last-minute proposal offered by O'Rourke last week.

Most have concerns about particular neighborhoods. Many say the sticking point is the lack of notification that a change was coming.

But even more fundamentally, after the unexpected unveiling of the new plan at a school board meeting Wednesday, many have begun to take issue with the entire redistricting process.

"Our concern is with ... the whole way this has been handled," said Angela Sugg, a social studies teacher at Mount Hebron High School.

O'Rourke's recommendations came after 11 months of work by a citizens advisory committee produced three plans for consideration, and an individual community submitted another proposal.

Many county residents, including Sugg, said they had assumed the final decision would be based on one of those locally produced ideas.

To the south, Sugg's colleagues share her sentiments.

"The general feeling is frustration because we still don't know why the decision was made one way or the other," said Steve Lagana, one of the creators of the "gray" plan - submitted by community members from Lime Kiln/Fulton and summarily shot down by O'Rourke's trump-card proposal. "What has been thrown into doubt now is the process by which the decisions are made."

In interviews since announcing his ideas for shifting students to fill the new Reservoir High School in the fall, O'Rourke has defended his decision and the process.

After receiving plans from the citizen-led Boundary Lines Advisory Committee, gleaning information from scores of county residents at two public hearings and gaining advice from key advisers, O'Rourke said he was able to combine the best of all the ideas into a "superior plan."

That was not just his prerogative, O'Rourke said, but his responsibility. And, he said, his decision only validates the process.

"The public hearings were very much a significant part of this process," he said last week. "So were all the e-mails and the other plans that were suggested."

Some agree with that view.

"I understood and realized that part of this whole process was to add community input, and we did that," said Jerry Bialecki, a co-chairman of the BLAC. "At no time did the board give me the impression that we were the end-all."

But others have qualms.

"We don't know the criteria, so we're frustrated," Lagana said. "Are they made on the facts or are they made on political considerations?"

O'Rourke's plan modifies the BLAC-produced "red" plan in many ways, but leaves one major component intact: the shifting of 800 North Laurel students from Atholton High School to Reservoir - which Lagana's gray plan opposed.

"It's the elephant in the room that nobody's talking about," Lagana said. "Show us the reasons [for moving those children] and we can live with it. We may not agree with it, but we can live with it."

Mount Hebron parents also are asking: Why?

"If they go through with this plan, there's nothing that Mount Hebron suggested, nothing," said Cathy Melvin, who is scheduling a meeting next week for parents to discuss their concerns with O'Rourke's proposal.

Under the superintendent's plan, students in a large western portion of Mount Hebron's current district - but not those in the eastern corner of the district - would attend Centennial High School.

Under a plan suggested by the advisory committee, that eastern corner of Mount Hebron's district, including students from several apartment complexes and lower-income areas, was slated for Centennial. But the superintendent's proposal, parents said, would keep those "more diverse" areas at Mount Hebron and siphon off the higher-income neighborhoods to Centennial.

"This is an opportunity to address the equity issues, but it's not being addressed. It's actually being made worse - the balance is being thrown off," Sugg said. "This plan is going to exacerbate the disparity, particularly between Mount Hebron and Centennial."

O'Rourke's proposal also would change BLAC recommendations regarding Gaither Farm - a small, upper-income neighborhood in Ellicott City. Gaither Farm students now attend River Hill High School. Under O'Rourke's plan, they would attend Wilde Lake - an idea rejected months ago by the BLAC.

"It's really been an emotional roller coaster," said Gaither Farm resident Carrie Adler-Myers. "As soon as we win a battle, we lose a battle. We were really caught off guard."

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