Group faults procedure for school boundaries

Public input was limited, they say in appeal

April 28, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY .. | LIZ F. KAY ..,SUN REPORTER

A group of Pikesville residents and homeowners associations from the area are appealing to the state school board, questioning the level of community involvement in the selection of an attendance area for Woodholme Elementary School last year.

"The testimony shows how a major segment of the affected population was excluded from the process," Alan P. Zukerberg, president of the Pikesville Communities Corporation, said in his closing argument before an administrative law judge yesterday.

On the other hand, the creation of a school attendance area "is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a democratic process," Edmund O'Meally, an attorney for the county school system, said in his closing. The policy does not guarantee that the community will have "anything more than input," he said.

Woodholme, which opened last fall, was built to relieve crowding at elementary schools in the northwestern part of the county, particularly at New Town Elementary.

The school system appointed a boundary study committee that worked with the school system's Office of Strategic Planning starting in November 2004 to make a recommendation.

The superintendent's staff then reviewed the recommendation, and Scott Gehring, the Northwest area director, made a final recommendation to the county school board, which voted to accept the boundary a year ago.

According to the school board policy on boundary changes, the area director appoints "parents, teachers, administrators, and other representatives from the schools and communities involved to the boundary study committee."

Principals from the affected schools serve on the committee. The PTAs and faculty councils of affected schools also select representatives for the committee. Gehring also appointed four community representatives.

But Zukerberg said that two of those community representatives, Pat Roulhac and Russ Hopewell, are not board members of local community associations.

Roulhac is a retired county teacher who was recommended by county school board member Joy Shillman, according to the attorneys. Hopewell is a retired county principal.

"They stacked the committee with people who were in the education system and designated them as community representatives and kept us in the dark until the community forum," Zukerberg said.

"A representative is somebody who represents a larger group," said Michael L. Marshall, attorney for the appellants in his closing. The committee members' role, as described by the board's policy, is to "provide input to the Boundary Study Committee as a representative of the affected neighborhood" and to provide information when necessary from the committee to the neighborhood.

Leslie R. Stellman, an attorney for the county school board, and O'Meally said the school system's policy does not define a community representative.

Both Roulhac and Hopewell live near Woodholme Elementary, and Hopewell was a member of the security committee of his homeowners' association, Stellman said.

Zukerberg questioned why members of his organization, a coalition of 16 homeowners associations, including some within Woodholme's attendance area, were not asked to participate on the committee.

Gehring said after yesterday's hearing that he did not select anyone from the Pikesville Communities Corporation because the group had stated its desire to send children from one area to Fort Garrison Elementary rather than Wellwood International Elementary, where they are zoned.

As a result, Gehring said, he doubted that a representative from that group could serve objectively on the committee.

Zukerberg also questioned the community's ability to respond to proposed boundary lines that were presented at a public forum in February 2005.

"By the time you get to the community forum, you only have two choices," Zukerberg said. "The time to really have something meaningful to say is before the community forum."

But Gehring and the attorneys for the school system said those who did not feel they were heard at the community forum could have addressed the county school board at a subsequent public hearing as well as at the board meeting where the boundaries were adopted.

Stellman said board members discussed the objections to the proposal before they voted unanimously, with one abstention, to approve the boundary.

"The board knew everything they were feeling and thinking and took it into account when they took their vote," he said.

Administrative law Judge Douglas E. Koteen is expected to send a recommended ruling and findings to the state board of education in September.

The parties would then decide whether they want to appeal that recommendation before the state board, Stellman said.

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