Still no consensus as redistricting vote looms

The Howard County Board of Education is set to vote on a redistricting plan that could impact about 1,800 elementary students next year, even as board members are still trying to reach consensus on a plan.

With less than 48 hours to go before the vote Thursday, Nov. 15, board members took part in the most recent — and last — of four work sessions on the proposal, a discussion that lasted three-and-a-half hours.

Some board members were in favor of moving the least amount of students as possible, provided Superintendent Renee Foose and school staff committed to taking steps to cure the problems of overcrowding and unbalanced attendance within a specific time frame. After two hours of discussion, Foose said the board was looking for a "silver bullet" that didn't exist.

"We need to recognize the approach with which we got here is not the same approach we need to move forward," she said. "Just pushing kids west is not going to solve some of the issues we're hearing from the community, and to put a time frame that we rush into is going to get us exactly where we are right now. ... Most importantly, we need to hear from our community, and we need to at least decide on a possibility so we can study it and learn from the past."

During public hearings, residents argued that Foose's plan was rushed and involved little community input. After the attendance area committee had spent months drafting plans, finally coming up with a favored draft known as L10, Foose told staff to go back to the drawing board, only about two weeks before the proposal was to go to the board in October.

The redistricting had three goals: Open a new elementary school on Ducketts Lane in Elkridge, alleviate overcrowding in East Columbia and ease overcrowding at Veterans Elementary — a school built for 788 students with a current enrollment of more than 1,000.

Foose's plan represented a perspective on the opposite end of the redistricting spectrum from the committee's original plans. Instead of moving 2,800 students as initially proposed in June, or the 2,600 students in L10, Foose's plan moved little more than 1,800 students.

There are no public hearings scheduled before the board's vote Thursday. Last year, during redistricting for southeastern elementary schools, the public hearings came after the work sessions. This year, they came before.

The fundamental differences in redistricting approaches were discussed Tuesday night, with board member Cindy Vaillancourt suggesting that either the board do one or the other: move as few students as possible now to minimize the impact while the board and school system work to create a better, "bold" long-term plan, or explore the merits of L10 to solve the disproportionate utilization of schools across the county.

Vaillancourt asked for a commitment from Foose to look at different approaches to addressing capacity imbalances — magnet programs or different capital projects, for example — which Foose agreed to do within three years.

Over the course of four work sessions, the board produced 10 additional plan ideas, working from drafts already proposed by Foose and the committee. During the final work session, much discussion hinged on the neighborhoods currently attending Veterans Elementary, and where portions of the attending area be shifted.

Board Chairwoman Sandra French said she would not vote for any plan that created a non-contiguous attending area of the neighborhoods north and south of Route 40. Under Foose's plan, those neighborhoods would go to Waverly, an idea that riled community members.

Ultimately, after much number-crunching from Joel Gallihue, manager of school planning, board members suggested splitting up the three areas and sending the students to three different schools: St. John's Lane, Hollifield Station and Northfield elementary schools. With the split, each neighborhood would be in a contiguous district, and at schools closer than Waverly.

Board members, however, remained split themselves on what plan to vote for: the newly dubbed board plan "10" or board plan "9," which involves moving students out of St. John's Lane and into Waverly. French directed staff prepare both scenarios for a vote Thursday.

After the work session, French reflected on the long process, and said that in trying to accommodate every neighborhood's needs, "we want to please everyone, and we wish we could. The reality is that we can't."

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