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Howard school board approves middle school redistricting amid parent outcry

By Sara Toth, stoth@tribune.com

5:28 PM EST, November 22, 2013

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Amid angry outbursts from parents, the Howard County Board of Education Thursday finalized redistricting plans that will send 1,177 students to different middle schools next year.

The vote — broken into 13 separate motions for each of the shifts among nine middle schools — came less than 48 hours after the board mulled over several draft plans Tuesday, then ultimately decided to set aside weeks of public hearings and work sessions and go with the original plan presented by school system staff and Superintendent Renee Foose in October.

Emotions ran high Thursday night as well, with parents from Emerson, Meadowridge Landing and the neighborhoods south of Route 216 in attendance. Chatter started immediately when the final vote was tallied, and when Chairman Frank Aquino thanked community members for their input, the room erupted.

With cries of anger, parents shouted their frustrations to the board.

"Why are you thanking us? You didn't listen to us," a Mayfield Woods parent yelled.

Another Mayfield Woods parent from Meadowridge Landing said she was "insulted" by the board's actions.

A mother from Hammond who had hoped to be moved to Lime Kiln yelled directly to Foose: "You should be mortified." Foose has repeatedly called for more public input in the school district's decision-making processes.

"Change is hard, whether it's perceived that change will be worse or better in the long run," schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said Friday. "It's hard. It's understandable, and there's always going to be emotional reactions in the process but we put as much opportunity for public input in place intentionally so that people's voices are heard. We steeped the redistricting in objectives to try to ground the process."

The school system started collecting community input last spring, before the annual feasibility study in June made any preliminary recommendations. Amani-Dove also pointed to the citizen committee that worked on redistricting proposals throughout the summer and community meetings before the final recommendation in October as ways the public was involved.

"In the end, we have to do what makes the most sense for all of the families in the county," she said. "The interests of one community shouldn't override the interests of others."

When a preliminary vote was taken Tuesday, some parents were visibly shaken, with a number crying and others approaching board members after the work session and saying they would never vote for them again. Of those who cast votes of approval in the split preliminary decision (Aquino, Ellen Giles, Ann De Lacy and Sandra French), Aquino and French are up for re-election next fall, two months after the redistricting will take effect.

Brian Meshkin and Cindy Vaillancourt cast dissenting votes when it came to moving students from Murray Hill Middle School to Patuxent Valley Middle School, from Hammond Middle School to Lime Kiln Middle School and from Mayfield Woods Middle School to the new middle school currently being built in Hanover's Oxford Square development.

Janet Siddiqui also voted against moving students from Mayfield Woods to the new middle school, and abstained from the votes on moving students from Murray Hill to Patuxent Valley, and from Hammond to Lime Kiln.

Vaillancourt cast the sole dissenting vote when it came to moving students from Patuxent Valley to the new middle school.

During the course of public testimony, community members from various areas of the county repeated concerns: the Meadowridge Landing community that currently attends Mayfield Woods did not want to be sent to the new middle school, Murray Hill parents in the Emerson neighborhood did not want their students moved to Patuxent Valley, and parents south of Route 216 urged the board to move the entire region from Hammond to Lime Kiln rather than just some neighborhoods.

Through hours of collaboration and public feedback, the board did come up with a plan that addressed all of those concerns and offered some changes to the northern attending area of the new middle school in an effort to relieve more Elkridge and Ellicott City middle schools. But that plan was scrapped as board members cited a desire to keep the focus on the new middle school and lack of notice to communities that plan could have impacted.

Though the window for public testimony had closed for redistricting Thursday, Emerson resident Marci Isaacs took the podium for public forum during the meeting to call upon the board to "make us proud that we voted for you."

"We didn't vote for you to have you then vote against us," she said.

Friday, Aquino said the board listened to the hours of testimony and read all the emails sent during the public input process.

"To suggest the board did not listen to the testimony is hard to understand," he said. "There's a difference between the perception we didn't listen, and a disagreement between the requests and what we were ultimately able to put into effect. ... There are no tougher decisions than those that have to do with redistricting, and by definition you're going to disappoint some people."

The board has to strike the balance, Aquino said, for what's best for the entire county, and public input is "a necessary part" of how the board makes decisions.

"I don't want people to equate disagreement with our decision to an indifference on our part," he said.