The southwest area school rezoning committee met for the first time Wednesday night in the cafeteria of Catonsville High School to take the first steps in developing a new map for 11 of the region's 13 elementary schools.
At the meeting, which was led by Matt Cropper, of Cropper GIS, the company working with Baltimore County Public Schools to moderate the process, the group of almost 50 committee members were given binders with information that included current zoning maps, school enrollment data and population statistics.
Rezoning school districts in the southwest area, along with the construction of three new elementary schools in the region and a 200-seat addition to a fourth, is BCPS's plan to address overcrowding in the area. Six of the seven elementary schools in the Catonsville area are over state capacity, three by at least 100 students, according to county schools data. All of the Arbutus area's six elementary schools are over capacity.
The four schools that will see construction — Westowne, Relay, Catonsville and Westchester — each have parent and staff representatives on the committee.
The seven other elementary schools that share a boundary line with one of the four schools also have representatives on the committee.
The meeting was available on live stream through the school's website and was open for public attendance, but participation was restricted to only those on the committee.
There will be boundary change meetings later in the fall that will offer a chance for the public to voice their concerns and opinions.
State Dels. Charles Sydnor (District 44B) and Eric Ebersole (District 12) attended the meeting to observe the process, as well as 1st District Councilman Tom Quirk's aides, Kathy Engers and Pete Kriscumas.
The goal of the redistricting process, Cropper told the committee members as they browsed through the paperwork given to them, is to come up with a solution that works not only for the individual schools the committee members come from, but for all the schools on the southwestern portion of the county.
In introducing the committee members to their objective, Cropper laid out a basic set of criteria for the group to follow.
"[Think] of communities as social groups," he said, adding that the committee should do its best to not divide close-knit communities into different school districts.
Other things that should be taken into account when determining the boundaries, he said, are things like geography and traffic patterns and diversity of each school's student body.
Though some parents and community members in the months leading up to boundary chance process have expressed concerns over how the changes made at the elementary level could affect local middle school and high schools, Cropper urged the committee members to keep the focus on the task they've been assigned.
The committee will use maps of the high school and middle school districts as guidelines for the creation of the new boundaries, but they will not address the boundaries of those schools, he said.
"This criteria is not looking at middle school redistricting, not looking at high school redistricting," he said. "We're focusing on elementary school boundaries."
After a brief exercise in identifying the challenges of the rezoning process, committee members were given large colored maps of the southwest area and its current school boundaries. They were invited to make recommendations for any changes to the maps ahead of the next meeting.
Many groups of members began drawing potential boundary lines on potions of their maps. Others requested geographic identifiers, like the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, campus, and major commercial areas be identified on the maps the group will use to develop their recommendations.
"I think it went really well," Johnnycake Elementary parent Obi Linto said after the meeting, which lasted a little over an hour and a half.
Linto,one of Johnnycake's parent representatives, said he has three children currently enrolled in the school. Wednesday meeting, he worked with representatives from both Johnnycake and Lansdowne Elementary to evaluate the map of the current school zones.
"It's good that we jumped right into it," he said.
Westowne Elementary parent Kecia Johnson said she was very encouraged by the progress of the meeting and by the other committee members involved in the process.
"I really enjoyed it," she said after the meeting, adding that the end results of the process have the potential to impact a community far larger than just the students of the 11 elementary schools and their families.
"It affects generations, and if you think of it that way, what we're doing is affecting not just our children, but the community at large," she said.
Jeffrey Sanford, another Johnnycake parent on the committee, said he lives close to the Johnnycake-Westowne boundary. He said he feels confident that the groups of school staff, parents and community members will walk away from the process with a plan that does the most good for the community.
"It's going to be drawn out, but it's worth it," the father of two fifth-grade twins said, "It's our children, so why not invest [the time and resources] in their futures?"
The next committee meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 30 at Catonsville High School.
The committee has until Feb. 2 to make a recommendation for the new boundaries to the school board. The board will then announce its final boundary decision March 1.