Snag forces new vote on school boundaries

Technical errors shift 30-day window for appeal by unhappy parents

January 08, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

Howard County elementary and middle school redistricting decisions that everyone thought were final really aren't, said the school board's lawyer, and they won't be until tomorrow night when the board votes on four corrections to incidental boundary line errors.

Technically, that reopens the 30-day deadline for parents to file appeals with the State Board of Education over boundary changes residents believed were decided in November.

Parent Denise Ruggiero, who filed an appeal with the state board Nov. 24, says she will use that to her advantage if possible.

If "we have another 30 days, I'll get another 30 people to appeal," she said.

Having the process still in play theoretically threatens Ruggiero's original appeal, though, along with those of three other parents already on file. Their appeals could be dismissed for jumping the gun, Howard school system lawyer Mark Blom said. But he promised not to ask for that.

"I'm not going to stand in front of an administrative law judge and say there was a period of time when the board was making adjustments and therefore we should throw all this out and make people start all over again," Blom said. "I'm not going to inconvenience people that way."

In his required response Monday to the four appeals before the state, Blom did, however, write that the county board "has not made a final decision in this redistricting matter and therefore these appeals to the State Board are premature and subject to dismissal."

But that information was there just so the state board would have a full picture, Blom said, and not because he intends to pursue it.

The board voted on the boundary changes, which everyone -- including Sandra H. French, the board chairman -- thought were final Nov. 21 for elementary pupils and Nov. 26 for middle-schoolers.

But errors in the wording of four motions were discovered last month, after Ruggiero filed her appeal, and corrections were offered, effectively reopening the process.

Approval likely

Those corrections, which deal with areas not under appeal, will go before the public for comment tomorrow during the board's evening meeting. They are likely to be approved in a vote directly afterward.

No comment will be entertained during the meeting about any motions other than those up for correction, the board has said, though it reserves the right to make changes to any of its decisions at any time, according to Blom.

Ruggiero, who lives in east Columbia, filed her appeal last fall on the grounds that the board slipped in changes to the boundaries of her child's school, Stevens Forest Elementary, without giving parents adequate time to react.

`Slap in the face'

To reopen the public hearing process for wording corrections is a "slap in the face," she said.

"They're going to change words and give people an opportunity to comment, but not us, when they've changed everything," she said.

The board, and its lawyer, say plenty of time for response was allowed.

Another east Columbia parent, Joanne Andrews, filed an appeal on the same grounds, claiming the late changes that would send her child from Jeffers Hill Elementary to Talbott Springs are unfair.

"It is my belief that the Howard County Board of Education failed to provide the public with an opportunity for public review and comment," she wrote in her appeal.

Two other parents, Carrie Adler-Myers and Jenny McFarlane, who live in the Gaither Farm section of Ellicott City, teamed up to appeal middle-school redistricting that would move their children from one crowded school to another.

"Our main point is that there were other options available, and the board refused to look at them," Adler-Myers said.

As part of its standard procedure, the State Board of Education compiled the appeals into one case, which is being reviewed by its general counsel. A hearing likely will be held, after which the board will have to decide whether the entire process, not just the pieces being contested through appeal, was legal.

Blom doesn't expect a resolution before June.

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