Baltimore school officials will review boundary lines of elementary schools for the first time in more than a decade as part of a broader plan to close or renovate dilapidated buildings and reduce class sizes.
The prospect of redrawing school zones has raised concerns among real estate agents, parents and political leaders who say changes could complicate efforts to attract and keep residents.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and several organizations have launched campaigns to retain families, as recent surveys have shown that many people leave Baltimore when their children reach school.
Decisions about redistricting would be at least two years out, school officials said, and could look different than the traditional neighborhood school zones that are based on population and proximity.
Lynette Washington, director of facility planning for the district, said that the last time the district did any significant rezoning was in 2004, when "spot zoning" took place to adjust for a high number of school closures. Washington said the next review would be "comprehensive."
"We're looking at it not just from a demographic standpoint," she said. "If you only look at certain areas, it's like a Band-Aid. It won't address issues in a comprehensive way."
It will be a hot button issue for highly sought-after schools like Roland Park Elementary/Middle, where class sizes have swelled to more than 30. The most recent state data show the average elementary school class size in Maryland is 21.
Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, a real estate agent in Roland Park and former city councilman, said any change is likely to hurt Baltimore's real estate market as families worry about being zoned out of a desirable school or potential buyers look elsewhere in the uncertainty.
The majority of home buyers in the city are childless, but households with children make up a greater portion in neighborhoods tied to desirable schools, Landers said.
"It will be a hot button issue, there's no doubt about it," he said. "Those school boundaries have a tremendous influence on where people are moving and whether they choose to move into an area or not."
Southeast Baltimore neighborhoods experiencing a population boom are looking for immediate solutions to school overcrowding.
City Councilman James B. Kraft said people in his district are debating whether it needs a new school or to expand an existing school, Hampstead Hill Academy.
In addition to Hampstead Hill, Kraft's district houses the most overcrowded schools in the city — Armistead Gardens, which is at 183 percent capacity, and John Rurah, which is at 188 percent — as a result of a boom in Latino families.
Kraft said he doesn't advocate redrawing neighborhood boundary lines, calling them arbitrary. He said the way some lines are drawn in his district, students one mile away can attend Hampstead Hill, but those who live across the street from the school can't.
Kraft said he would support a "super-zone" that would effectively allow students in all of Southeast Baltimore to attend any school in the region.
People "want their kids to go to the schools in their neighborhoods," he said. "Our goal is for every kid to be able to walk to school. We need to do something. But there are ways to do this that don't create these artificial boundaries."
The city's planning department recently urged the district to review boundary lines for elementary schools, saying the city has "dramatically changed" since such a review was done two decades ago.
The department also said that the district's 21st Century Building Plan to rebuild, renovate and close buildings will affect attributes of neighborhood schools, like whether children can easily walk to school.
"As our city population has changed and shifted, it becomes necessary to review the school zone lines," the report said. "Elementary schools can and should be the anchor of a residential community and therefore the zone lines need to be based on population and walkability."
The school system said the process is already underway this year as the first slate of schools were closed this summer under the 21st Century Plan and the first to be rebuilt will start this fall.
A request for proposals was issued in May, and officials hope to choose a vendor in September to conduct a "feasibility study" that will analyze enrollment data and neighborhood demographics around the city's elementary schools.
The study is expected to take about a year and produce several options — which could include minor tweaks to boundary lines or replacing neighborhood zones with regional ones — that the public would then vet for at least a year.
The system's 21st Century Buildings Plan, a $1 billion effort to overhaul the district's infrastructure in the next 10 years, has been promoted as a catalyst for transforming the city and attracting new families.
The nonprofit Live Baltimore this spring launched a "Way to Stay" campaign focused on making families aware of strong city schools.
That effort is likely to become even more important as redistricting takes shape, marketing director Annie Milli said.
"As the redistricting happens, it's going to be important that families find out about the other schools that are doing really well and that they recognize that they have more options than just the Roland Parks and the Mount Washingtons," she said.
School system building utilization rates show that Roland Park is at 101 percent capacity, and Mount Washington is at 118 percent.
Roland Park Elementary/Middle parent Kimberly Lodge agrees with Milli's assessment.
Lodge said the school's reputation for being among the best in the city is a double-edged sword. The school gets more money and resources with its large population, but last year her children's classes swelled to more than 30 students.
In buying a home in the neighborhood, "we also wanted a public school environment where all kids are addressed, individually," Lodge said. "And with 34 kids, that's not realistic."
Keith Scroggins, chief operating officer for the school system, said the district is not likely to expedite the process of redrawing lines to address overcrowding at individual schools.
The district does try to address such issues every year by helping schools adjust their space to accommodate more students, and breaking up schools that serve elementary and middle school grades.
Matt Hornbeck, principal of Hampstead Hill Academy, said he believes that overcrowding is a positive sign and that there is no one solution to alleviating it.
The operators of Hampstead Hill, which has more than 700 students and is at 116 percent of rated capacity, is lobbying to expand into the former Canton Middle School building, which was vacated this year.
"Successful schools and principals want more kids, not fewer. Space is the problem," Hornbeck said. "Sometimes over-enrolled schools are filled because of great teaching, not necessarily because there is no place else to go."