Many agree input helped redistricting

Larger public role seen as beneficial in high school changes

`An improved process'

Some parents say plan didn't work, agenda was `preset'

January 27, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The lines are drawn.

Howard County's high schools have new boundary lines and, now that the job is done, educators, parents and community members are sorting through 10 months of hurt feelings, shuffled school districts, volumes of e-mail and mounds of paperwork and emerging with a common thought: Despite the rancor and long, late nights, this redistricting process - which ended Thursday - worked better than any school redistricting in Howard history.

"I think it's absolutely an improvement over what existed before," said Mary Kay Sigaty, co-chairwoman of the Boundary Lines Advisory Committee, which over several months created three proposals for the board to consider.

The Howard County school board set the new lines Thursday night, using a modified version of the committee's recommended red plan - with adjustments from Superintendent John R. O'Rourke - setting the stage for the opening of Reservoir High School and sending thousands of students to new high schools next fall.

That outcome left some teen-agers and their parents unhappy, but far more residents were involved in deciding where their children would go to school than ever before. And the effort gave them a clearer understanding of the challenge of juggling schools and children in a fast-growing county.

Hundreds of parents attended hearings and other public meetings. Thousands of angry e-mails were sent. And communities came together across the county to share hopes and fears for their children.

"Any time you engage the public in as important a process as this is, from the beginning and as much as you can, I personally believe that the product will be better," Sigaty said.

The advisory committee's effort marked a radical change from the past, when Associate Superintendent Maurice F. Kalin redrew school boundary lines, presented them like the Ten Commandments and the community griped about them later.

Responding to community complaints that past redistrictings were a closed-off and dictatorial product of the school administration, the five-member school board created a committee of eager community members with the power to draw proposed lines.

County residents applauded the change until the new process began to expose the warts Kalin had worked out on his own - in the quiet of his office.

Committee members had a difficult time understanding their mission: Were they to draw the lines? Or were they merely to make suggestions?

Once the goal became clear, the members had trouble seeing eye to eye about how to get there. Critics called the members self-centered, tunnel-visioned and uncooperative. They argued that the committee was too big to get anything accomplished and the process had gone from a dictatorship to one with no leadership.

Information was late getting to the weekly meetings, and when it got there, it was often faulty.

When the committee's three detailed proposals were submitted to the school board in November - a month late - the community outcry was fast and furious. At times it seemed as if nobody was happy with any of the ideas presented.

School board members slogged through stacks of paperwork, a half-dozen or more community-based alternative plans, hand-scrawled maps, thousands of e-mails and many phone calls.

Three public hearings, more than 300 speakers and five work sessions later, the board worked out a new plan. Not everyone is happy with the new way the districts are configured, but most seem to agree with Sigaty that the longer, bumpier road led the county to a better outcome.

"My sense is that this is an improved process with an improved result," O'Rourke said. "Every contribution, every comment, every communication made the final product better. Even the plans that weren't accepted contributed to the success of the final outcome."

Even school board critics said the more open process was better.

"I just think more citizens' participation is always better, from a governmental perspective. That doesn't mean that it's not more painful," said Allen Dyer, who is in the middle of a lawsuit against the Board of Education, which alleges the board violated the Open Meetings Law. "No one said that participatory democracy was fun and games. There's work involved, responsibility and pain."

Dyer said he could clearly see the traces of community input in the final plan, including the decision not to move this year's sophomores in the shuffle.

Not everybody thinks the process was more open or improved.

"There was an appearance of an improved process," said Steve Lagana, co-creator of the rejected gray plan, submitted by members of the Fulton/Lime Kiln community, whose children will be split among three high schools this fall. "I don't believe the process worked. The fundamentals of this decision were predetermined long ago, and there wasn't any community input that was actually included."

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