No redistricting exceptions, board decides

Seventh-, fourth-graders will switch schools in fall

`We don't have the capacity'

Panel member works out compromise on calendar

February 14, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Board of Education dashed the last hopes of some families last night when it voted against allowing redistricted fourth- and seventh-graders to open-enroll at their current schools in August for their final elementary or middle school years.

"We have to set the rules and then stick to the rules," said board member James P. O'Donnell. "We don't have the capacity in our schools where we can make exceptions like that."

The board also adopted a calendar for next school year during its meeting and directed the formation of a committee to study teacher workloads.

The decision to allow no redistricting exceptions crushes families with seventh-graders, in particular.

With high school boundary changes looming, chances are some seventh-graders will shift to a new middle school next year, go to a new high school the following year and be redistricted to a third school by their sophomore years -- a total of four schools in four years.

"We know this report disappoints many parents," said Assistant Superintendent Roger Plunkett, who delivered the recommendation to disallow open enrollment. "However, we have to look at what is best for the school system."

Board member Virginia Charles fought to keep small groups of students -- 11 and fewer -- at five middle schools from having to move, but her plan was shot down on a vote.

After sending the proposed calendar for next school year back to committee for revision Jan. 23, the school board approved the original version with board-suggested amendments, creating what calendar committee co-chairwoman Patti Caplan called "a good compromise."

During its last meeting, the board said the number of half-days on the draft calendar, two more than in the current school year, was unacceptable and asked the committee to give it another shot. It did, shaving as many as five half-days off the calendar for some schools.

But Charles apparently had spent the past three weeks considering other options herself, and moved to wipe out the weeklong late start for nontest takers during the High School Assessment exams and replace two half-days with a whole day off, satisfying teachers who need the time to plan and parents who cannot find sitters for two half-days.

Board member Courtney Watson called the changes "a balance everyone can live with" and sanctioned the calendar, along with the other members.

Inextricably linked to the school calendar is teacher workload, said Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association.

Staub approached the board, asking it to direct schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke to create a task force on workload, planning time and assessments because O'Rourke had not made any moves to do it on his own.

"You should know that your employees are at their breaking point. Frustration has been growing all year long," Staub said. "This group would provide a forum for teachers and support staff to share their concerns."

Concerned that such a committee would lead to the supplanting of contracts and suffering of student achievement, O'Rourke took issue with Staub, whose previous statements have hinted at potential work-to-rule arrangements.

"I take that as a threat," O'Rourke said, "and I don't respond to threats."

Staub said the union is not backing work-to-rule, but that something needs to change.

"I care about the legions of teachers, but I care about each one of those students," O'Rourke said. "We have lots to talk about, but it's going to be a straightforward conversation."

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