Parents voice concerns about redistricting

Residents at meetings focus on neighborhood unity, property values, classroom ratios in runup to opening of Patterson Mill complex

Education Beat


She wanted to be at the game - in fact, not being there nearly drove her to tears.

But as one of her daughter's biggest high school soccer games of the year went into overtime, Jen O'Neill sat in the cafeteria of Aberdeen High School, clutching a cell phone and waiting for text message updates.

She was surrounded by about 70 other parents on edge for a different reason: the possibility of countywide school redistricting.

Concerns from across the county began to emerge this week at town meetings run at four county high schools by the Board of Education. The board will likely have to shuffle thousands of students between schools when the Patterson Mill middle and high school complex opens in 2007. It is the first countywide redistricting effort in a quarter-century.

With concerns ranging from neighborhood cohesion and bus schedules to property values and shifts in the socioeconomic balance of the county, hundreds of parents turned out to participate in the meetings. The sessions were intended to focus only partly on redistricting, but that issue turned out to be the main draw.

O'Neill, who said she suspected the school system viewed her Riverside community as a lower priority, feared her teenage daughter could be forced to attend a different high school. She said her younger children have cried at the prospect of being separated from friends.

"We want to be left aside," said O'Neill, 38. "Riverside has such a tight bond. We love the school, and we want to be done with this."

A committee will present its findings Nov. 16 to the board, which will then make its recommendations on Nov. 28. Those recommendations will be subjected to numerous rounds of scrutiny and public comment before they are adopted in the spring.

"We can't make all the people happy," said Richard Bock, a member of the board of directors for the Harford Business Roundtable, which co-sponsored the meetings. "For people who think that is the goal, that can't be. But it's an opportunity to listen and learn."

The highest turnout was at Bel Air High School, where nearly 200 parents, students and county and school officials packed the cafeteria and clustered into groups of six to brainstorm ideas on the direction of county schools.

Forest Hill resident Barbara Gassaway, who is considering switching her son from a private school to Harford public schools, scrawled "TEACHER/STUDENT RATIO!!!" onto a green sheet of paper.

"We need to put that really large here, because they're gonna listen," she told members of her table. "If you think about it, if you have [a good teacher -student ratio], you have everything."

Across the room, Mark Marchman said he wanted to make sure his daughter, who uses a wheelchair, would not be transported to a less-accommodating school.

"Some schools are better equipped than others," the 34-year-old Bel Air resident said.

Many Bel Air area parents said their concerns revolved around where their students could end up. A suggestion to keep property values in mind elicited cheers from a few audience members.

"We all came here because if [schools] get rezoned, where are [students] going to end up going?" said Renee McNally.

McNally, 39, said the quality of the schools was a reason her family moved roughly four years ago. She suggested all schools should be improved so that it does not matter where students attend.

In Aberdeen and Joppa, attendees seemed to put emphasis mainly on community building and eliminating stereotypes about the U.S. 40 corridor.

Fast-growing Abingdon is sandwiched between the two areas and does not have an elementary or middle school, and many said the current feeder system is unclear. Others were frustrated that their areas were seen by some as undesirable destinations for redistricting.

"It's not true what everyone says," said 16-year-old Kellie Mooney, a senior at Edgewood. "We're just as good as everyone else."

Rhonda Shaak, a music teacher at Bel Air Elementary who attended the Joppa town meeting, said the county could address larger issues of diversification by drawing vertical rather than horizontal boundaries in the southern part of the county.

At the conclusion of each meeting, parents were asked to place stickers under the redistricting category on a large banner that mattered to them most. School officials rolled up the banners and said they would consider the results as they continued to examine how best to fill the Patterson Mill complex.

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