Howard County Council emphasizes need for community input in redistricting discussions

At a joint meeting Monday between the Howard County Council and Board of Education, council members emphasized the need for community input on impending school redistricting for the 2018-2019 school year.

The school system's 2017 feasibility study, which was released in June, recommends an extensive redistricting across Howard County elementary, middle and high schools. Redistricting recommendations would impact more than 8,700 students, or 16 percent of students, in the Howard County Public School System.

The majority of students affected would come from the elementary school level at 4,016 students; followed by 3,691 students from high schools and 1,076 students from middle schools.

During Monday's meeting, County Council chairman Jon Weinstein, who represents District 1, said he wanted to make sure the community is fully informed and involved in the redistricting process. Weinstein said he and his colleagues have received dozens of emails from concerned residents, particularly about their children being redistricted to schools further away than their current school.

The Howard County Council is not involved in the decision-making process, he said, but does provide input to school planners. The Board of Education, the attendance area committee, the schools superintendent and community members can also share their thoughts prior to the board's final decision in November.

"Our questions are really about their process and what [the planners] intend to do through their process to make sure people are aware when they're making decisions and how they're making those decisions," Weinstein said before the meeting. "They need to take a deep look at how they can utilize all the capacity that we have in our school system as effectively as possible."

An extensive redistricting in Howard County is "long overdue," according to Weinstein, who said he's watched the schools in his district suffer from overcrowding. When school planners completed redistricting in 2013 with the opening of Thomas Viaduct Middle in Hanover, he said, one downfall was how they only redistricted around the new school.

Weinstein said "that's just not viable" with schools like the overcrowded Manor Woods Elementary and the underutilized West Friendship Elementary, which are only six miles apart.

"Until we start looking all around the county at how we utilize all the great school facilities we have to the fullest extent possible, we're not doing a service to the kids who are in the overcrowded schools," Weinstein said.

District 2 Councilman Calvin Ball, who represents parts of Columbia, said school planners must continue thinking ahead years in advance to stay on top of the growing numbers and school capacities. School board policy requires building stay within 90 to 110 percent utilization.

Ball said there's room for improvement in the initial redistricting recommendations, but collaboration and communication with the community will lead to "a better product."

"I would like to ensure that neighborhoods are kept together as much as possible and that there is equity in the decisions that are made in a way that will most positively impact our children, families, schools and neighborhoods," Ball said.

"I understand we haven't had a major redistricting in a long time," added Greg Fox, of District 5 in western Howard County, "but at the same time, I'm hoping that the Board of Education can accomplish it with less movement."

Renee Kamen, the school system's planning manager, said the Attendance Area Committee is continuing discussions of the redistricting recommendations through Aug. 15, using information gathered from an online public survey. The survey allows community members to share their thoughts on the latest feasibility study, their likes and dislikes as well as overall concerns.

To fill out the online survey, go to hcpss.org and click School Planning (Maps) under the Schools tab. A link to the survey is available under Process Overview.

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