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School overcrowding hot topic at school board candidates forum

A long-term plan to address overcrowding in the Elkridge region with redistricting and new schools was one of the top issues discussed at the most recent forum for Howard County Board of Education candidates, held Thursday evening in Elkridge.

The region's overcrowded schools have been a hot-button issue for some time, and two new schools are scheduled to open in the next two years to alleviate the problem.

At Thursday's forum, sponsored by the Greater Elkridge Community Association and held at the Grace Episcopal Church Parish Hall, candidates took the opportunity to address concerns over a lack of public input into the process.

The forum attracted about 30 people — and only four of the six board candidates. A previously scheduled meeting between the Board of Education, the county's PTA representatives and the Community Advisory Council explained the absence of incumbent Ellen Giles and Janet Siddiqui, both of whom had others speak on their behalf.

Siddiqui's husband, Nayab Siddiqui, delivered opening remarks in her stead, but took a seat in the audience and did not take questions from the moderator, GECA President Howard Johnson. Joan Lancos, Giles' campaign treasurer, remained seated with the candidates to answer questions in Giles' place.

The six candidates are running for three open seats on the board.

When asked how the school system should decide where to put a new school — the new elementary school set to open on Ducketts Lane next year was met with public outcry — some candidates described the process of projecting enrollment as flawed.

"The data we're getting so far has not been accurate," Ann De Lacy said. "The data we get in regards to populations has got to be correct ... We need to have it come from a variety of sources. We need to make sure we have the entire community involved in the process, an open, transparent process. We have to make people feel that the school that's being built is being built to facilitate the students and the communities, and not to facilitate developers."

Lancos countered, saying that while in a perfect world the board would know in advance "who would move into the house down the street," and a new school would be ready with empty classrooms waiting for an influx of students, "numbers always change, and kids grow up. ...

"Ellen specifically asked me to tell you, she hopes we can build plans that would be sustainable for five years, so that if a child starts at an elementary school, they can finish at that elementary school. ... The state does not provide funding until the bodies are already in place. It's between a rock and hard place."

Other candidates agreed that the model for projecting student enrollment was far from perfect, with "no magic solution," as candidate Jackie Scott put it.

"There has to be better communication, collaboration and partnership among the school board, the County Council, the planning board," Scott said. "There has to be an understanding about building and developing areas that we're informing the community, working with the community. ... We have to stop being reactionary. We have to make common sense decisions in a much more nimble fashion so we can make changes."

Looking at a long-term solution, said David Gertler, is about balancing growth and planning.

"It's about understanding that what's really important is keeping together communities, keeping schools whole and providing a stable environment for our kids to learn," he said.

Bob Ballinger noted that the region had been through the past "two-and-a-half years with the opinion that they have not been heard by the school board or the system," and that the public had to be made "part of the process from the start."

Also discussed at the GECA forum were the much-contested move to sign on to Race to the Top, teacher evaluations and Plan Howard 2030.

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