School-boundary bitterness affects races for council

Tensions remain in Columbia's River Hill

'It's very upsetting'

Lancos feels impact in effort against Ulman

October 18, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Lingering bitterness from last year's fractious redrawing of Howard County's high school district boundaries has already sunk one County Council candidate and is hurting another's campaign in west Columbia's District 4.

The phenomenon might be a measure of how seriously people in Howard County take school issues, but it also is keeping alive tensions between River Hill, Columbia's newest and most affluent village, and older areas such as Wilde Lake and Atholton.

The different nature of River Hill has come up several times in candidate forums between Republican Joan Lancos, an Atholton-area resident, and Democrat Kenneth S. Ulman, a young lawyer who lives in River Hill.

Lancos and Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty, who lost to Ulman by 36 votes in the Democratic primary, were volunteers on the school boundary committee that redrew lines to create a district for the new Reservoir High in Fulton, which opened this year. One River Hill precinct in which Ulman got 283 more votes - the most lopsided return in the district - sealed Sigaty's fate.

Resentment in River Hill about the roles of Sigaty and Lancos on the 28-member committee - which placed some River Hill neighborhoods in the Atholton High district - is still potent, observers said.

"They're still really smarting over it," said Mary Beth Tung, a Republican running for House of Delegates who lives in nearby Clarksville and is campaigning in the area.

"I really think it's unfortunate," said school board Chair woman Jane B. Schuchardt , who said the elected school board is responsible for the adopted plan, not the volunteer committee members.

"There was an e-mail circulating [in River Hill] suggesting that be cause I hadn't looked out for their interest in redistricting, I wouldn't as a council member," Sigaty said. "For me personally as a committee member, I watched a very important part of Wilde Lake [High School's] district get redistricted to Atholton. My role was for a countywide solution."

Lancos, who was asked to volunteer by Atholton's principal, said resentment over the redistricting is aimed her way, too, as she campaigns.

"One person told me I was being held responsible for her neighborhood no longer attending River Hill High School," Lancos said. "It's very upsetting to me. If we hold volunteers who make the best attempt to do the best they can personally responsible, why would anyone want to volunteer again? I think that is sad. I should have quit, but that's not my style. That would have been the easy way out."

News reports in November 2001last year detailed the painful personal price committee members paid. Some were confronted after late meetings by "bullying mobs of moms," or were "bombarded with angry letters, e-mail and phone calls at home," one Sun article reported. There were eventhreats of lawsuits.

Lancos said then that she was getting streams of e-mails - often containing ugly comments - to the point that she did not wear her name tag at some meetings to avoid confrontations.

Now, campaigning in a heavily Democratic district against Ulman, she is spending lots of time in the River Hill area trying to turn people's perceptions.

"I've been seriously concentrating my time in River Hill the past two months. They are the most unique [area] because they are the newest," she said, adding that people whose children were moved to Atholton are now generally satisfied and "willing to accept that things haven't worked out the way they thought."

But after spending 20 minutes talking to Patrice Durham , a former Pointers Run Elementary PTA president and mother of four, Lancos failed to win a convert.

"If Joan Lancos is put in, we will be poorly represented again. She still doesn't hear we are not bad-mouthing Atholton, just the process," Durham said.

"It's her entire attitude. I felt she didn't hear a word I said," Durham added. People in River Hill resent being pitted against children from the poorer North Laurel-Savage area in the redistricting because "it seemed like we didn't want to go to school with those kids," which isn't true, she said.

River Hill parents "like our community school. We want the same things parents at Dasher Green [Elementary in Owen Brown] want. We're no different," Durham said.

Lancos said she agrees completely, but Durham is not buying it. "There's been this perception that people have a negative image of us for some reason," Durham said. Lancos "still tries to degrade our feelings."

Although some River Hill parents whose children attend Atholton say their kids are happy, Durham is not sure Atholton will be right for her son, now in sixth grade. She said he is "an incredible athlete" who may need the competition at River Hill more than the opportunities at Atholton.

"Atholton is a wonderful school for children who can't make the [athletic] team at River Hill" because there are more chances at the less- crowded school to play sports and participate in other extra curricular activities, she said.

Ulman is the beneficiary of the fuss, though he said he is not exploiting it.

"I don't fuel it, and I don't address it at all," he said. "My whole issue is that I want to represent every neighborhood and bring the district together."

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