Howard Week

February 15, 2004

White enrollment drops in Columbia, N. Laurel over 5 years

In this 50th year since the Supreme Court's historic Brown vs. Board of Education ruling ending legal segregation in schools, racial concentrations of students continue to be a concern in Howard County and Columbia.

In the past five years, white enrollment has dropped substantially in many Columbia and North Laurel schools, nearly tripling the number of schools with mostly minority students in a county where 65 percent of students are white.

At the same time, three older Columbia schools that once had black majorities have gained white students in recent years. Asian-American and Hispanic enrollments are growing quickly, too.

Despite the changes, the drift in Howard seems to stop short of the heavily lopsided racial enrollments common in Baltimore County. No Howard school is more than 75 percent minority this year; only one is majority African-American. By all appearances, Columbia enjoys a trait highly valued by many of its residents -- the diversity that seems so fleeting elsewhere.

Despite rezoning, changes won't occur too quickly

Now that the comprehensive rezoning bill has been approved, don't expect Howard County's landscape to change overnight.

Every 10 years, the county implements the goals of its General Plan through comprehensive rezoning, an opportunity to reshape development from Elkridge to Lisbon. Of 189 requests for changes in zoning received during the yearlong process, 126 changes were made, representing 2,660 acres.

However, because it can take years to develop a site because of limited allocations of housing units available each year, it may be a little while before any construction begins.

O'Rourke studying results of grade-change inquiry

Howard County schools Superintendent John R. O'Rourke said Monday he is "prepared to act" this month on the results of a $40,000 investigation into allegations of improper grade changing at Centennial High School by two top education officials.

Anyone shown by the investigation to have acted improperly could face discipline or termination. The investigation concluded late last month.

"I am studying the report and making sure I have all the information I need," O'Rourke said. He had promised the Board of Education he would make recommendations Feb. 26 but said Monday he will try to speed up the process.

O'Rourke, school board deal with operating budget

The Howard County Board of Education slogged through Superintendent John R. O'Rourke's $480.7 million operating budget during a four-hour work session Tuesday, quizzing staff members on numbers and needs, and growing increasingly despondent as members matched fantasy figures with reality.

"[We're] getting word that it's not going to be able to be funded," said Courtney Watson, school board chairman.

County Executive James N. Robey has asked departments to submit budgets with an increase over the current county allocation from 5 percent to 7 percent. The school system's proposed budget is a 13.7 percent increase over this year's.

Levy on new houses urged to help pay for schools

Howard County's state legislators moved closer Wednesday to approving an excise tax on new homes to help pay for school construction, but county officials warned that it might not be enough to do the job.

A formal vote could come next week.

The county's three state senators agreed on a $1-per-square- foot charge on new homes that would be paid by builders when they get a permit. Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said the proposed revenue of $3.4 million to $3.7 million would enable the county to borrow $58.4 million -- a little more than a quarter of the $200 million the county hoped to raise.

Decision on extending school day is delayed

After a heated discussion that lasted more than an hour, the Howard County Board of Education put off a decision Thursday night on whether to extend the school day, a move necessary to meet state instruction requirements.

An analysis by The Sun in December showed that Howard County routinely falls short of the 1,170 instructional hours required at the high school level -- this year by 42 hours. Staff and board members have been scrambling ever since to find the best way to comply with the law while creating the least educational disruption.

One suggestion was adding 15 minutes to the school day at all levels and another was adding 10 minutes at the high school and middle school levels. But every plan has drawbacks, some costing as much as $430,000 to implement or causing an exam-schedule overhaul.

Suspended teacher gets probation in abuse case

A longtime Howard County schoolteacher who sexually abused a close relative in the 1980s was sentenced Thursday to three years' probation in a case that was first reported to authorities more than a decade ago -- but was never pursued in court.

Despite William Emil Becker's admission to police in 1990 that he molested the girl, no charges were filed then and school authorities were apparently not told about the allegations, prosecutors said.

The case resurfaced last year when the victim, now 29 and also a teacher in the Howard County school system, sought counseling and was encouraged to contact the state's attorney's office.

Becker, a 26-year school system veteran who had taught technical education at Wilde Lake Middle School since 1983, has been suspended without pay since September, according to lawyers and school officials. He was indicted Aug. 27.

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