Howard County public school officials are calling for a comprehensive redistricting of elementary schools, saying a "cascade of movement" is needed to deal with an unanticipated trend of overcrowded schools in the east but undercrowded schools in the west.

The disparity is due to a variety of factors — including a changing economy, varied housing markets and evolving school system policies — and won't be easy to resolve, officials said.

"You can't just take 300 kids from Elkridge and bus them out to Dayton Oaks," said Ken Roey, the system's director of facilities, planning and management.

Outlined in the system's annual feasibility study issued in June, the redistricting plan, which largely focuses on moving students from southeastern to western elementary schools, is being reviewed by the Attendance Area Committee. It will go before the school board in November and, if approved, would take effect in the 2012-13 school year.

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It would be the first comprehensive school redistricting since 2007.

While the study also calls for a new elementary school in Elkridge in 2013 and states that "redistricting should be done as infrequently as possible" to avoid uprooting students, it projects that "tight capital budgets in the future" will continue to make the creation of new schools difficult, and that tapping existing, unused space in western elementary schools is necessary.

"You have to use everything that you have available," Roey said.

The tentative plan, while not a complete fix to the problem, would affect 1,157 elementary students, or about five percent of the 22,816 enrolled at the start of this year, and is part of a larger reorganization of elementary, middle and high school students expected to occur through 2016.

At its core, the plan is also an acknowledgment by school officials that the system's schools, while not overcrowded collectively, are mismatched to regional populations — that more elementary school seats are needed in the east, fewer in the west.

It's a reality that hasn't gone unnoticed, even at schools like Dayton Oaks Elementary, in Dayton, the system's most undercrowded school.

"The general feeling is that they should be able to plan better," said Dayton Oaks PTA President Julie Krein, who noted that classrooms often sit empty in the school. "There are a lot of nice aspects of having the space, but it's not necessarily the best use of our tax money."

A regional shift

The fact that capacity and enrollment growth "do no share the same geography," as the report states, is largely the result of a regional sea change that has surprised school officials over the last five years.

A decade ago, officials were seeing the largest enrollment growth in the west. To absorb that growth, the system opened Reservoir High in 2002, Folly Quarter Middle in 2003 and Dayton Oaks in 2006, while renovating other elementary schools in the west.

As recently as 2005, most of the schools in the western part of the county, especially elementary schools, were either overcrowded or near capacity, officials said. But the growth didn't last.

"At the time when we planned for those schools, the schools in that area were severely overcrowded, and the evidence of the rate of students produced per home suggested we were on the right track to build what we built," said Joel Gallihue, the manager of school planning. "But for some reason, the resulting total number of homes today, which are primarily single-family detached, doesn't produce students as high as when we made the projections."

As student numbers began falling short of expectations in the west, growth in the east began outpacing expectations, a dynamic that has played out in particularly dramatic fashion in the system's two newest elementary schools.

When Dayton Oaks opened in 2006, it was filled to 69.4 percent of its stated capacity. Numbers there immediately started trending down, and today the school is filled to just 56.6 percent of capacity.

When Veterans Elementary in Ellicott City opened in 2007, the last time the system redistricted a large number of elementary students, it was filled to 94.2 percent of capacity. That number has jumped every year since, and today, the school is filled to 124.6 percent of capacity.

Wide geographic disparity