Harford to discuss school crowding

Redistricting inevitable, some board members say

March 25, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Harford County's Board of Education meets tonight to vote on the thorny issue of redistricting in the Bel Air area, and while members are unsure of the outcome, some say moving students is inevitable.

"There will be redistricting of some sort," said Eugene C. Chandler, board president. "It should have been done a long time ago, but there's no use crying over spilled milk. We did not have a plan."

Last month, school administrators presented the board with a 15-point plan for "balancing enrollment," which would move students over several years from three crowded central-county schools: Forest Hill Elementary, Southampton Middle and C. Milton Wright High schools.

Tonight the board will consider the 15-point plan, as well as scenarios developed by schools Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas showing the effects of adopting different portions of the plan. The board may vote for any or all of the points, and members can offer suggestions.

"The board has many options," said schools spokesman Don Morrison.

Southampton is 499 pupils over capacity and has more than a dozen portable classrooms. C. Milton Wright has 216 students more than the school was built for and Forest Hill has 95.

Board members worry not only about educational quality but safety and health issues, as children cram into lunchrooms, bathrooms and classrooms.

"I want to know what we're going to do if we're not going to redistrict," said Thomas D. Hess, a board member who is nearing the end of his second five-year term.

On Thursday, Haas and County Executive James M. Harkins released a 10-point plan of agreement on school crowding and budget issues. It offers, among other things:

Mutual support for a commission to consider the site for a new middle-high school;

A promise of county funds for a 1,600-student North Harford High School;

$2.5 million in county funding for expansion of C. Milton Wright and Southampton;

Voluntary transfers of students to less-crowded schools;

Redistricting, as a last resort.

This signals a change from a month ago, when Harkins hastily called a news conference -- without notifying Haas or board members -- to announce plans for a new middle-high school and decry the board's plan to move students.

"He is still fundamentally opposed to redistricting because of the way it's going to tear apart neighborhoods, and in some cases, families" as younger siblings are sent to different schools than their older brothers and sisters, said Merrie Street, the county's director of governmental and community relations.

If students aren't moved, enrollment projections indicate that in 2008, Southampton would be 989 over capacity with 40 portable classrooms; C. Milton Wright would be 781 students over with 31 portables; and Forest Hill would be 317 over with 12 portables.

Chandler said crowding has reached a "crisis point."

"I wouldn't have any hesitation to move students" if it improves class sizes and the learning environment, he said.

The board will meet at 6:30 tonight at Magnolia Middle School, 299 Fort Hoyle Road.

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