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Harford school board gets first look at regional proposals for redistricting plan

The initial proposals for Harford County Public Schools’ plans to balance enrollment throughout its 54 schools by redistricting got their first public viewing this week before the Board of Education.

Contractor FLO Analytics, which the school board hired in August, has been working with school system officials and an advisory team — made up of HCPS central office staff, school principals, parents and a county government planner — as they gather data and put together proposals.

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The process is still in the early stages, with public input meetings slated for April and June and a final decision by the school board in early 2022. School system leaders and representatives of FLO Analytics gave the school board a progress update Monday night.

Kate Doiron, of FLO Analytics, presented to the board initial proposals that will be given to the advisory team. Those proposals come with a regional approach to creating a balanced enrollment, that is within its state-rated capacity, for each school.

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Planners are using what Doiron called a “general seats concept” as they craft their proposals. The concept involves reserving classroom space at each school for regional initiatives such as pre-kindergarten, high school magnet programs and supporting students with special needs.

The enrollment balance is then found through the remaining general education seats. Doiron used Roye-Williams Elementary School in Oakington as an example. Two classrooms would be reserved, one for pre-K and the other for a STRIVE program. That leaves four classrooms for kindergarten students and 25 more for first through fifth graders. With 22 students per kindergarten classroom and 23 per first through fifth-grade classroom, that gives planners 663 general seats to work with, according to Doiron.

“That’s what we’re trying to balance for, knowing that we’ve already reserved those program spaces,” Doiron said.

Planners have set up a regional strategy when determining what attendance boundary lines should be shifted, which is in line with guiding principles for the balancing enrollment project, such as maintaining neighborhood schools and minimizing the amount of time students spend on a bus.

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“If we change a boundary, we’re not going to send a student really far away from where they are now,” Doiron said.

Seven regions have been established, based on the current boundaries of each of Harford County’s 33 elementary school districts. Many of those regions include schools that are over capacity, and planners are grouping them with neighboring schools that have space available.

Harford County had 37,362 students enrolled for the current school year, as of the annual Sept. 30 enrollment count, which is a drop of more than 1,000 from the same period the year before. Enrollment in HCPS has been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic as some families take their children out of school and others do not register their children this year.

Prior to the pandemic, which forced the school system to provide instruction in an all-virtual format for much of this year, some schools, such as those in the Bel Air and Havre de Grace areas, have exceeded their capacity or are expected to do so within three years, meaning the county government enacted a moratorium on new residential development around those schools.

Officials also expect HCPS’ enrollment to grow over the next five to six years.

“We know that there are high levels of residential development in the area, and forecasted to be in that area, so we’re keeping that in mind as well,” Doiron said of schools in the southeast region of the county, including those serving Aberdeen and Havre de Grace.

She noted that Havre de Grace Elementary School is at 106% of its capacity and expected to hit 109% in the future, while Roye-Williams is at 67% — planners’ goal for the southeast region is to have enrollment at 87% of each school’s capacity.

“This is a pretty good example of what we mean by balancing,” Doiron said of the difference between Havre de Grace and Roye-Williams, noting that planners would consider how attendance areas can be reassigned “so that we can get that leveled out within that region.”

A screenshot from a presentation from Harford County Public Schools' plans to balance enrollment shows regional options for elementary schools.
A screenshot from a presentation from Harford County Public Schools' plans to balance enrollment shows regional options for elementary schools. (SCREENSHOT)

The six other regions include North, for schools in northern Harford County; Northeast for Darlington and Dublin elementary schools; South for schools in Edgewood, Joppa and Riverside; Center East for schools in Bel Air and Churchville; Center West for Bel Air North, Fallston and Forest Hill schools; and Center South for schools in Abingdon and south of Bel Air.

The Center South region includes Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School, which the school system plans to rebuild in the coming years. The school board approved unanimously a scope study proposing construction of a single building that would replace the three existing buildings. The new building would be 119,600 square feet and have the capacity for 1,129 students.

The project timeline, pending final state approval, calls for starting construction in June of 2022 with the building ready to be occupied by the start of the 2024-25 school year, according to HCPS officials.

A larger building for Homestead-Wakefield, which is currently at 120% of its general seats’ capacity and is projected to get to 126% in five years, would be very helpful when determining future boundaries, according to Doiron.

“We can actually make the boundary similar to what it is now, and not have to change too much around for those students, just because we have a bigger school,” she said.

While planners are working on a regional basis, there could be some students reassigned to schools out of their region, such as shifting some students from Youth’s Benefit Elementary School in Fallston, either north to Jarrettsville Elementary or south to Joppatowne Elementary, or moving some North Harford Elementary students south to Dublin Elementary.

Planners also are reviewing middle and high school boundaries, and expect to keep those boundaries similar to the elementary school lines. Their goal is to have each middle and high school under 100% of its capacity. Bel Air Middle School is at 121% of its capacity of general seats, and Patterson Mill Middle is at 115% with growth forecast for both schools, according to Doiron.

School board members stressed the need for public input as officials go through the balancing enrollment process.

“I appreciate the considerations that you’re keeping in mind as far as transportation, distance and such,” member Carol Mueller told officials.

“There’s a real strong sense of community, and I know that there won’t be a lot of people excited about changing to different schools, so thank you for your work,” she added.

The dates are still being finalized for the April and June community forums. Plans for elementary schools will be reviewed in April and secondary schools in June. Doiron said they will be held in an online webinar format, with time for presentations and question-and-answer sessions.

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Board member Patrice Ricciardi encouraged planners to allow as much time as possible for questions from the public — Doiron said the webinars will be about 3 hours long, with time slots dedicated to each region and an agenda so people can tune in when their school is up for discussion.

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“This is going to be a very volatile conversation, and we do not want the public to feel that [they have not been] given the opportunities to give us input,” Ricciardi said.

Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations for HCPS, stressed that the project is still in the beginning stages, and there will be additional opportunities for public input when recommendations are presented to the superintendent and later to the school board.

“We’ll be checking in with the community at various points throughout the process,” Brown said.

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