Parents protest shifting students

Redistricting will send Fallston students to Bel Air High, angering some in Forest Lakes

January 07, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

Jennifer Cook, the student representative to the Harford County school board, transferred to Harford Technical High School from a private school four years ago.

"I did not know anyone, but I made friends fast," said the 17-year-old high school senior from Edgewood.

Jennifer quickly established herself in her new surroundings, becoming involved with student government, robotics, the National Honor Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and sports.

That is exactly what she predicts will happen when thousands of Harford's students start classes in new schools next fall as the result of a unprecedented countywide redistricting.

"Redistricting seems like a big monster now, but it won't be that bad," Cook said.

The Harford County Board of Education adopted new boundaries in April, and the policy survived a challenge to the state board brought by several parents from the Forest Lakes community.

"We made a decision, and the state board upheld it," said Mark M. Wolkow, school board president. "It is a settled issue that represents the best interests of parents and children."

Despite the finality of the decision, the same Forest Lakes parents persist in their opposition to redistricting their children, who would move from Fallston High School to Bel Air, a 50-year-old building that will be razed as soon as a new high school is built on the same campus.

Forest Lakes was chosen for its proximity to Bel Air and its size, said Don Morrison, schools spokesman. "When a large community is on the periphery of a boundary, it is easier to move students," he said.

The parents disagree.

"Does anyone think it is in the best interest of the students to needlessly crowd them into whichever school we are going to ask the state to fund?" Sandy Krause asked at a recent board meeting. "I am asking for my children not to be moved from their current school with no portable classrooms to an older school with 15 portable classrooms."

Fallston High has no portables, but its feeder school Fallston Middle on the adjoining campus has 10, and officials anticipate overcrowding at the high school without the redistricting. Some of those structures will be removed as redistricting proceeds, but both schools will be at or near capacity.

Statistics showed that the new boundaries would put most county high schools below 92 percent capacity through 2009. Seven of the county's nine high schools are at or above capacity now.

Patterson Mill High, which is to open in September on Route 924 between Bel Air and Abingdon, and the new Bel Air High School will help ease crowding in Harford's densely populated central core. By 2010, construction and expansions should provide about 2,500 new seats for high school students, enough to meet current demand, officials said.

"This is not a heartless decision," Morrison said. "The board had all the facts, and after eight months of community meetings, members made a tough decision that balances enrollment."

Parents say that moving students from Fallston to Bel Air will improve the county's chances of getting state funding for the new Bel Air High School, but the project is set for a spring groundbreaking regardless of state funding. Harford is forward-funding construction of Edgewood and Bel Air high schools, at a cost approaching $150 million.

Patterson Mill, built to accommodate 1,200 high school students, will open in September for ninth- and tenth-graders, many of whom will transfer from Bel Air High School.

While losing part of its current attendance area to Patterson Mill, Bel Air High would receive hundreds of students from Fallston and C. Milton Wright high schools, and Wright would see its boundary drawn in tighter.

"No one disputes that redistricting is traumatic and invasive," Morrison said. "It is the last thing we want to do."

School administrators are already working with their respective communities to make the transition as easy as possible.

"They are contacting students and speaking with parents," said David A. Volrath, supervisor of secondary schools. Experience tells him that a redistricting controversy has a limited life span, he said.

"Kids are adaptable and are often more aligned with kids in their community than in their school," Volrath said. "When we opened Fallston in 1978, there was a big hullabaloo about not wanting to go there. Now they do not want to come back."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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