With months of work on an elementary school redistricting plan finally over, Howard County schools and families are looking to the next year and the changes ahead.
"As things finish up, it's a huge 'phew,' a giant community exhale," said Ken Berlack, a parent at St. John's Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City, a school that will lose about 150 students to nearby Waverly Elementary and gain about 210 new students from Hollifield Station and Veterans elementary schools.
The plan approved last week by the school board, a scaled-down version of previous proposals, has been greeted with more chagrin than relief by many. They say it only temporarily solves the problem of school overcrowding and, moreover, points up the need for a new approach to redistricting in Howard County.
"I think the board's conversation focused on the total number of students, and minimizing that number to the exclusion of evaluating the quality of the move," said Lisa Schlossnagle, who served on the attendance area committee that recommended more sweeping changes.
"In the end, they took this minimalist approach, so they're going to have the same overcrowding issues in the same elementary schools sooner than if they had taken a more comprehensive approach."
The plan approved Nov. 15 would move 1,860 elementary school students to new schools next year — 1,000 fewer than originally proposed by school system staff in the feasibility student presented in June, and about 30 more than Superintendent Renee Foose's plan, presented to the board Oct. 18.
The feasibility study's plan, and the plan recommended by the attendance area committee but never formally presented to the board, would have created a drastic domino shift westward, shifting students from overcrowded schools in the east to underutilized schools in western Howard, in the process easing redistricting in later years.
Some championed the minimalist approach taken by the board.
"In L10 (the committee plan), 50 percent of our school was going to be split apart," Berlack said. "That was egregious. ... We wanted to take in more kids to the maximum, but to minimize the outflow, and ultimately share the burden, not to have one school be a way-station (to the west)."
But critics say it was short-sighted.
Jeremy Goldman, a Wheatfield resident and Waterloo parent, noted that Foose said during a work session she was committed to exploring ways to resolve overcrowding and unbalanced capacity within three years.
"There's always talk of some significant new moves that are going to change the county for the better, and the each board keeps kicking the can down the road," Goldman said. "This time, their fixation on moving the fewest number of students just delays solving any problems."
The final plan was approved by a vote of 5-2, with board members Brian Meshkin and Cindy Vaillancourt voting against it. While other plans were proposed with less than 48 hours before the vote, the approved plan was first discussed at a work session Nov. 8, and again briefly at the work session Tuesday, Nov. 13. The final plan drew on elements of Foose's proposal.
"We can deal with these issues as best we can right now, with a goal of having a good plan (later)," said board Chairwoman Sandra French.
Vaillancourt, however, said she was "uncomfortable with making a decision based on a promise that people up here cannot guarantee," and Meshkin did not want to "keep relying on redistricting ... while we pray for a silver bullet."
Even though a new elementary school on Ducketts Lane in Elkridge — the opening of which was a major focus of the redistricting — will have an initial enrollment of 550, much of the discussion during the process centered on the Ellicott City neighborhoods around Veterans.
Several neighborhoods in particular faced different outcomes in several different plans. Throughout the process, for example, students in several neighborhoods were to be sent to Waverly, St. John's Lane, Northfield or Hollified Station elementary schools. With the final vote, some will go to St. John's and Hollifield, others will remain at Veterans.
"In the moment, I realized it was what I'd wanted all along," said Wendi Loraine, a parent whose child will remain at Veterans. "It's hard to grasp that it's really what you wanted – to stay. It's hard to feel excited when you know 277 kids are still going to leave. Mostly, we're just relieved it's over and we can start moving on."
Parents in the Ellicott City neighborhoods of Wheatfield and Brampton Hills, where students attend Waterloo, fought unsuccessfully to have their children instead attend Veterans — which is right across the street from their neighborhoods.