School board hears from 39 on redistricting

140 3-minute speaker slots available at hearing

`No Neighborhood Left Behind'

Keeping pupils together a dominant theme

October 31, 2002|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Every cause needs a slogan, and the parents of at least one Howard County neighborhood have adopted this one: Keep Our Kids Together, or KOKT.

Clutching a hand-lettered sign with the acronym across it, Wheatfield resident Dale Swecker stood before the Howard County Board of Education yesterday during its public hearing on redistricting and asked that the concept contained in the acronym become part of the criteria used to determine school boundary lines.

"[Instead of] No Child Left Behind," Swecker said, "let's modify it to be `No Neighborhood Left Behind."

It has been a theme throughout this round of redistricting, which moves elementary and middle school districts next year to allow for the opening of two schools: Nobody wants to move at all, but if they have to go, let neighborhoods go as a whole.

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in yesterday's Howard County edition of The Sun about a Howard school board redistricting hearing, two groups of parents -- one from Atholton Elementary School and one with pupils who could potentially attend Atholton -- were incorrectly labeled as supporters of a plan they oppose. The groups support the recommended elementary school boundary line plan, not the alternate. The Sun regrets the error.

And the recommended elementary and middle school plans, which many at the hearing lauded, largely do that.

Perhaps that is why turnout was low at yesterday's hearings. Or the debate over where to send thousands of elementary and middle school children might just be warming up.

With 140 three-minute speaking slots available, only 39 people stood to air their kudos, complaints or suggestions before the board, which expected throngs to show up as they did last year during high school redistricting.

"We bent over backwards to create a lot of hearing slots," said Sandra H. French, vice chairman of the board.

They bowed out of a conference in Ocean City, made provisions for overflow hearings and allotted eight hours for testimony each day.

"I suspect they're waiting to see what our questions are and where we're leaning," French said.

Two days ago, the board held its first public work session after having had five days to review a recommended and alternate plan for elementary and middle schools, submitted by the School Boundary Line Committee and the Office of Geographic Information Systems, headed by David C. Drown.

It is a lot to absorb.

The recommended elementary school plan would move fewer pupils than the alternate, would distribute test scores and recipients of free and reduced-price meals more evenly and would leave Phelps Luck Elementary room to accommodate growth.

But some have said the plan has a few geographic glitches that do not make sense physically and would leave the Hopewell neighborhood in a bad spot.

The alternate makes more geographic sense, they say, and would save Hopewell, but it would move more students. It would also replace half of Phelps Luck's pupil population.

The recommended middle school plan, which would shift children into the new middle schools from the three schools around it, is largely viewed as the most sensible, though it still would leave two schools with awkward transfers from middle to high school.

The only difference in the alternate middle school plan is that pupils who attend Ellicott Mills and live on the west side of Route 104 (or exit onto it) would go to Bonnie Branch Middle.

At Tuesday's work session, board members quizzed Drown about the plans, asking why boundary line panel members did this or that, bringing up questions people had e-mailed them and trying to figure out what the 130-plus pages of plan text meant.

Jane B. Schuchardt, board chairman, stayed into the wee hours of yesterday morning to sort it out.

"I was at the dining room table with all the maps spread out until I fell asleep," she said.

The public, however, seemed to have a healthy grasp of the concepts. People came armed with data, psychological research, annotated code excerpts and quotes from Yogi Berra and James W. Rouse.

Many, such as Keith Tunell of Glenmont, praised the plans and the boundary panel's work.

"I'm here mostly for accolades," he said, as long as the board doesn't "start meddling with things and muck it up."

But others had complaints, many of which were in opposition to the views of other areas.

While Swecker endorsed the recommended plan, he and other Wheatfield representatives demanded a better process and long-range planning.

"There's a lot of distrust in the process and in the system," said Dennis Barnabe, who lives in Brampton Hills, and spoke passionately about his dissatisfaction with the abrupt dismissal by the boundary line committee of an earlier plan that seemed viable.

But the earlier plan would have left Thunder Hill at 21 percent over capacity, and that upset parents with pupils there.

Delegates from the Hopewell community were disappointed with the recommended plan, because it would have left them in the awkward position of continuing to be bused beyond several nearby schools to Talbott Springs. They want what most have: a neighborhood school.

The alternate plan gives them that, but it is on thin ice with the boundary line committee, the Office of Geographic Information Systems and the board, which expressed anxiety Tuesday about how the plan would affect test and reduced-price-meal data.

"I think we're all concerned about the Hopewell situation," board member Patricia S. Gordon said.

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