Feeder process causes unease

School board should reassess community ties, councilman says

December 18, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

A county councilman weighed in on the school board's redistricting proposal last week, calling on the members to reconsider the division of neighborhoods and impact of changes in elementary-to-middle feeder patterns.

Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, a Republican representing Bel Air and Forest Lake, said the board should amend the proposal to give stronger consideration to community bonds.

"Generally, the best thing is to have kids move from elementary school to middle school to high school together," he said during Tuesday's council meeting. "It may not be possible in every situation, but I think it's important neighborhoods be left intact."

The redistricting proposal - which would balance enrollment in the county's crowded schools in conjunction with the opening of a new middle and high school complex - redraws the county's lines most significantly in the dense Bel Air area.

Thousands of students would shuffle among Fallston, C. Milton Wright, Bel Air and North Harford high schools, while the elementary-to-middle feeder patterns would be altered. The moves - coupled with planned expansions at several schools - would bring all high schools below 92 percent capacity, according to system figures.

The school system has not released more detailed data showing the number of children, by school, that would be affected - a number commonly disseminated by school systems at the beginning of redistricting process.

On Monday, a gaggle of orange-clad Forest Lake residents stormed the school board meeting. Armed with a petition signed by 750 residents, they demanded reconsideration of their community's inclusion in the Bel Air high school and middle school district.

Forest Lakes Elementary is one of nine elementary schools that would add another middle school to the list of those that they send their pupils to. Six of those elementary schools, including Forest Lakes, currently send children to only one middle school. Edgewood, Emmorton, Jarrettsville, Magnolia and Ring Factory elementary schools also would send pupils to two middle schools.

"We're not a line on a map - we're a community," said Mike Feinour, 42, whose eighth-grade daughter and third-grade son would attend new schools under the plan. "This is too much change. You're destroying the feeder system, and no one understands why."

Among parents' chief concerns has been the condition of Bel Air High's facilities. One parent even suggested the school be left unused until planned renovations are completed, an idea that may have drawn the most applause of any comments that night.

Mark Lotz, president of the Edwards Manor Homeowners Association in Forest Hill, presented an alternative proposal for the board's consideration.

After the meeting - and long after the standing-room crowd had filed out - board members expressed frustration at the community's perception of the redistricting.

The reaction is to be expected, officials said, but it's one they'll have to counter in the months of community meetings that will take place before a final plan is adopted in March or April.

"The proposal that's on the floor is the one that will remain on the table until the technical advisory committee comes to the board again after all the public meetings have occurred," Donald R. Morrison, a spokesman for the school system, said later in the week.

"The thing folks have to understand: We have 1,600 seats that have been created and have to be filled, and we'll do that by making schools that are overcrowded no longer overcrowded," Morrison said. "We knew it wouldn't be easy. We knew it wouldn't be fun. But it's encouraging that people are being so vocal about the pride they have in their schools."

Information, maps and charts have been posted on the system Web site explaining the proposal and the need for redistricting.

Left out has been information about how many children will have to change schools. Feinour said the school system's unwillingness to share the numbers was being viewed with skepticism by the community.

"The refusal of the administration to release data leads us to believe they are holding back or hiding some pertinent information," Feinour said.

Though seven of the county's nine high schools are above 100 percent capacity, Cassilly questioned the need for the division of some communities.

"Sometimes you have to bite the bullet, but you do it out of necessity," said Cassilly, who has two children who would be affected by the proposal. "You shouldn't do it purely because of bureaucratic oversight. That would be a shame."

Cassilly said the board members indicated to him a willingness to re-examine the plan.

"I've expressed strong interest in continuity," he said. "I am pleased to report that they are interested in this concept."

The board announced three community meetings, all from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., in which parents can air concerns: Wednesday at Fallston Middle; Jan. 4 at Joppatowne High; and Jan. 11 at Havre de Grace High. Further public hearings will be held in February.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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