Members of the Harford County Board of Education recently overwhelmingly approved changes in school policies on setting attendance boundaries and closing schools, but one member objected on grounds they were unnecessarily ceding their authority.
Board Vice President Francis "Rick" Grambo cast the lone vote against both policy changes when they were approved at the Feb. 10 board meeting. Both were approved by 8-1 margins.
The changes were drafted by school system legal counsel Patrick Spicer and were introduced last December.
The first change allows the school superintendent to "unilaterally" propose changes to the boundary lines of a school attendance area, although school board members will have the final say, once they provide forums for public input, just as it has in the past for all redistricting decisions.
"We wanted to just say that the superintendent would have authority to initiate a change in school attendance boundary lines, remembering that this would just be a proposal by the superintendent and only the board can finalize the adjustment of school boundary lines," Spicer explained during the meeting where the change was approved.
The new policy allows the superintendent to recommend adjusting school boundary lines if a new school is built; an addition is built onto a current school; a school's enrollment is at 100 percent or more of capacity or projected to be in the coming years; the superintendent is acting at the direction of the board or if the superintendent "deems it appropriate."
Grambo objected to giving the superintendent the authority to just determine unilaterally that boundary lines should be adjusted for no stated reason.
"I'm just not a fan of change for change's sake, and I think this is a little silly," he said.
Spicer explained the addition to the previously "listed items...came up in context of a school closure."
"In these listed items 'school closure' does not appear, and just as a new school would cause a need for some sort of adjustment of boundary lines, so would a school closure because you're eliminating that school," the lawyer said.
He said, however, the board's policy committee did not recommend adding "closure of a school," only that the superintendent could propose a boundary change in general, "just in case there were other potential things we were not aware of."
The second policy change involves placing the timeline for the process of closing a school, as it is laid out in state regulations, in the existing Harford County school closure policy.
The additional language states that, except in cases of emergency, the school board must announce its decision to close a school at least 90 days before the scheduled closing date, or no later than April of the preceding school year.
"We believed that additional language should be included, so the public was aware of all the language that was in the administrative regulation from the state board," Spicer explained.
Grambo asked Spicer to give examples of an emergency that would require a school to be closed sooner than 90 days.
He gave the example of a "catastrophic weather event" that rendered a building unusable.
Board member Robert Frisch noted Joppatowne High School was closed after a fire "basically fried the entire electrical system" and the Joppatowne students had to attend Magnolia Middle School until the high school reopened.
Grambo asked what would happen if the timeline language was not approved.
"Theoretically you would have to use the 90-day period, but sometimes, the sheer reality of the facts, what else can you do, you close the school...it is a common-sense provision," Spicer said.
Grambo, a vocal critic of the state school board, said he was worried the definition of an emergency circumstance could be changed "down the road."
"You give them an inch and they take a mile," he said of state education officials.