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baltimoresun.com

Foose's redistricting plan lambasted, lauded at public hearing

By Sara Toth, stoth@tribune.com

8:05 AM EDT, October 24, 2012

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Superintendent Renee Foose's final redistricting proposal for Howard County elementary schools was described by some parents as irresponsible and short-sighted at a hearing Tuesday, while others praised the plan for causing the least amount of disruption to county students.

"We were frustrated and disappointed when Dr. Foose called a last-minute meeting and asked for a new plan," said Cathy Smith, of Ellicott City, speaking on behalf of the Brampton Hills neighborhood. "She discounted the entire process up to that point, and disregarded an abundance of public feedback. ... She may genuinely believe this plan is better in the short run, but short-term, piecemeal plans ... are not better."

It was standing room only at the Department of Education Tuesday night, as nearly 150 people attended the first public hearing on the proposed redistricting plan that was presented to the Board of Education last week.

Ultimately, the plan moves more than 1,000 fewer students: Preliminary plans presented by school system staff moved 2,866 students for the 2013-14 school year, while Foose's plan pares that number down to 1,832.

The majority of those who spoke against Foose's plan, like Smith, were in support of the final draft created by the committee over the summer, known as L10. That plan would have moved about 2,600 students and create a westward shift to use more capacity in under-utilized schools, and its supporters argued that by moving more students now, fewer would have to be moved later on.

"The superintendent's plan is irresponsible, from the way it was created to the results it produced, and it will lead to more redistricting in a few years," said Jeremy Goldman, of Ellicott City. He spoke on behalf of his Wheatfield neighborhood, whose students attend Waterloo even as Veterans Elementary sits across the street from their homes. "Many parents would support moving more students now, if it meant less frequent redistricting. Don't kick the can down the road."

Foose's proposal was put together on short notice. After nearly three months of work from an attendance area committee over the summer, a draft plan and multiple meetings with local PTAs and the community, Foose told staff on Oct. 1 to go back to the drawing board. Critics Tuesday said it creates more "islands" of neighborhoods isolated from their local school, increased busing time and puts a heavier burden of redistricting on fewer shoulders.

The last-minute nature of the plan led some to criticize the manner in which it was created.

"Whether the plan submitted comports with (a policy that requires extensive public input) is for the board to decide," said Gary Kuc, of Columbia. "But I believe there's a question of whether it complies with the spirit of the process. ... That policy was set up to benefit the citizens, and it was followed up until the plan that come out of (the attendance area committee) was discarded. ... (I'm concerned with) the precedent this may be setting for future redistricting."

About 30 people testified before the board Tuesday night. Board member Allen Dyer was absent from the hearing. Brian Meshkin arrived late after his daughter's swimming practice, he said, as did Foose, who was speaking at Harvard University earlier in the day, said Board Chairwoman Sandra French.

The testimony was split among those in support of and those opposed to the content of Foose's plan. Those in favor spoke favorably fell mainly into two groups: those happy with the shift of students to open the new elementary school on Ducketts Lane in Elkridge, and those in the St. John's Lane Elementary School community, who were included in L10, but not in Foose's proposal.

"We understand that there are schools near us that are over-capacity and they do need relief, and we recognize there are schools that are under-capacity; however, we don't fit into either catergory," said Sara Bates, speaking on behalf of St. John's Lane's PTA. "We are nicely fitting into that 90-110 percent range (of capacity) ... The current plans allows healthy schools like ours to remain healthy."

Bates presented the board with a petition from her community asking the board to stop the "domino effect" of shifting students from school to school.

But parents in neighboring communities were angry that St. John's Lane, which had been included in L10 to relieve an over-crowded Veteran Elementary, was absent from Foose's proposal, and Veterans students are now proposed to be bused to Waverly Elementary. Under Foose's plan, students would be moved from an over-crowded Veterans to an over-crowded Waverly.

"This plan would move our children from one over-crowded school to another over-crowded school," said Heather Hartman-Hall, who lives in Ellicott City. "It doesn't matter how many people stand up and say 'this plan is wrong,' it should only matter that the plan is wrong. Previous plans asked that many of us together share the burden of redistricting, and the total amount of redistricting is the same with this new plan, it's just being shouldered by fewer kids."

A second public hearing on Foose's plan is scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Department of Education, with work sessions scheduled for Oct. 30, Nov. 7, 8, and 13, at 7:30 p.m. in the same location. A final board vote is scheduled for Nov. 15.

The proposal may be seen at hcpss.org/boundarylines, and feedback may be provided through the public hearing process, or by emailing boe@hcpss.org.