School crowding plan a relief, thorn

Redistricting makes room, disrupts many students, upsets Piney Orchard parents

April 20, 2008|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,[Sun Reporter]

Crofton Elementary's lunch is a series of six tightly choreographed shifts that takes up nearly three hours, twice as long as at most elementary schools.

Classroom space in the school is so limited that a special education class meets in what used to be a guidance counselor's office. Over capacity by 200 students, the school houses the overflow in 11 portables that hem the school building in from the sides and back.

"It can be very frustrating," Principal Donna O'Shea said.

A new redistricting plan approved by the school board last week seeks to solve Crofton's woes by moving 210 of the elementary school's students from the Walden community to the new Gambrills-area elementary school, which will open on Nantucket Drive this fall with a capacity of 713 students.

The boundaries needed to accommodate the new school will also affect 800 more students in five West County schools.

The new school is being built to relieve crowding at Crofton and ease the load at Four Seasons and Piney Orchard elementaries. School Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and his staff said his plan best helps the district brace for an influx of military families to the region during the next four years. The number of students is expected to increase in Crofton and along the Waugh Chapel Road corridor as the national military base realigment process brings hundreds of families to the area.

"We have eight portables at Piney Orchard, 11 at Crofton Elementary, six at Four Seasons. Those schools begged for analysis, begged for a solution, for something to be done, and we really felt the superintendent's plan was the best option," said Alex Szachnowicz, the district chief facilities officer.

After months of listening to acrimonious testimony over the repercussions of the redrawn boundaries on nearby communities and schools, the board chose Maxwell's plan over an alternative proposal submitted by a group of parents from Piney Orchard Elementary School.

The parents have complained for months that the redistricting process was unfair and that the turmoil of redistricting has disproportionately fallen on their shoulders.

Those complaints aside, the board's decision Wednesday night was unanimous, with school board member Victor E. Bernson absent. Still, the vote came with some hesitation.

"It's a really difficult process whenever you have to uproot kids and move them around," school board member Eugene Peterson said. "We had to do it with our daughter, moving her from the West Coast to Maryland, but it's hard. And when you're talking about young kids ... some kids many not be as well-adjusted and the move could be really hard on them."

Recommendations from a 23-member redistricting committee that met last fall helped form the basis of Maxwell's redistricting proposal. Under his plan, the new Gambrills school would also get 384 students who live east of Route 3, from Four Seasons Elementary.

To refill Four Seasons, the district will move about 200 students from Piney Orchard Elementary, which is about 150 students over capacity and uses eight portables.

Piney Orchard parents vowed to fight the board's decision. They raised concerns over conflicts of interest on the redistricting committee and called the new redistricting plan "a brokered deal."

"Four of the seven elementary schools [in the area] opted not to be affected by the redrawing of boundaries; it was a tyranny of the majority," said Jeff Andrade, an Odenton resident who has lobbied on the parents' behalf.

The Piney Orchard alternative proposal sends only kindergartners, about 110 students, to Four Seasons. The move would create an early childhood center at Four Seasons and still allow older students who have already made friends and relationships with teachers to remain at Piney Orchard, parents said.

However, school officials said the alternative proposal would require the school system to run an additional five buses between Piney Orchard and Four Seasons, an additional cost that made board members wary.

Szachnowicz later countered parents' concerns, saying the unaffected schools - Waugh Chapel, Odenton, Crofton Woods and Crofton Meadows elementary schools - did not have the crowding concerns that Piney Orchard, Crofton Elementary and Four Seasons did.

"Three of those schools are already under capacity, so the question was: `What benefit can be gained from moving kids out of those buildings?'" Szachnowicz said. "You don't want to get into a situation where you're potentially displacing students, disrupting learning unnecessarily."

ruma.kumar@baltsun.com

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