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Harford schools embark on balancing student enrollment; forum on elementary boundary changes set for Wednesday

Multiple Harford County Public Schools parents took to task Monday school system leaders and the planning firm they have hired to assist with the school system’s ongoing enrollment balancing initiative, blasting initial proposals to redraw elementary school attendance area boundaries and send their children to schools outside their neighborhoods in the coming years.

A webpage has been set up as the months-long balancing enrollment process gears up, with the final changes approved by the Board of Education slated to take effect in the 2022-23 school year.

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That process has been initiated as overall enrollment in Harford’s 54 schools increased from 2015 to 2019, plus “special program needs” grew during that time. The process is designed to relieve overcrowding in some schools and increase enrollment in others that are below capacity, according to the webpage.

“Please understand that HPCS is overdue for this balancing, and there aren’t feasible alternatives to moving boundary lines,” school board member David Bauer said during the board meeting Monday evening.

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He noted that new schools can be built, citing plans to build a replacement for the aging Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School in Bel Air in the coming years, but there only is enough funding now to replace or do a major renovation of a school every two years.

“Since we have more than 50 schools, that means that we will take more than a century to go through them all at the current rate,” Bauer said. “This is the situation that has been given to us, and we are all working to make the best of it.”

The balancing enrollment page includes an interactive map with proposed adjustments to attendance area boundaries for Harford’s 33 elementary schools. Potential changes to middle and high school attendance areas are expected to be released in late spring. The map also comes with a notice that the proposed adjustments are subject to change.

The current boundary adjustments would affect all elementary schools, with some students going to a neighboring school, as well as taking in new students from adjacent attendance areas. The majority of parents who shared their concerns during Monday’s school board meeting live in the Monmouth Meadows subdivision in Abingdon and the Bulle Rock and Scenic Manor communities in Havre de Grace, however.

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Families in Monmouth Meadows, which is north of Singer Road and west of Tollgate Road, currently send their children to Emmorton Elementary School. Proposed changes show children in a portion of that community would be shifted to Abingdon Elementary, just south of Singer Road and about a mile from Emmorton.

Families in Bulle Rock and Scenic Manor, which are in the northwest end of Havre de Grace near the Route 155/I-95 interchange, send their children to Havre de Grace Elementary School, more than two miles from Scenic Manor.

Planners have proposed shifting students from Scenic Manor and Bulle Rock to Roye-Williams Elementary School, about four miles away. Roye-Williams, which serves the Oakington area and Aberdeen Proving Ground, also would take in some students from Meadowvale Elementary in Havre de Grace, which is off Route 155 and roughly the same distance from Scenic Manor as Havre de Grace Elementary.

Parents from those communities blasted the proposed adjustments, saying they would break up tight-knit neighborhoods like Monmouth Meadows, require children who can now walk to school to ride a bus and ultimately put kids who have already dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and nearly a year of virtual schooling through even “more chaos,” as one parent noted.

Kate Doiron, a senior GIS analyst with FLO Analytics, the firm hired by HCPS to assist with balancing enrollment, welcomed the public feedback, though. She encouraged Harford residents to bring those same concerns to a community education forum scheduled for Wednesday evening.

Preliminary plans for balancing enrollment in Harford County elementary schools include having some students from Emmorton Elementary School being redistricted to Abingdon and Homestead-Wakefield elementary schools.
Preliminary plans for balancing enrollment in Harford County elementary schools include having some students from Emmorton Elementary School being redistricted to Abingdon and Homestead-Wakefield elementary schools. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Community feedback crucial

Doiron noted that she and her colleagues at FLO Analytics, which has offices in Beverly, Massachusetts, and Denver, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, do not live in Harford County and have not been able to travel to the area because of the pandemic.

The planners are relying on the expertise of an advisory team, which has had several meetings and more scheduled for April and May, to provide input as boundary adjustments are developed. The team is made up of HCPS central office staff, school principals, parent representatives of multiple PTAs and specialists in areas such as transportation, facilities management, food and nutrition, special education, and equity and cultural proficiency.

Feedback from those who live in the affected neighborhoods also will be crucial as the process continues, and it will be relayed to the advisory team, according to Doiron.

“That’s totally the purpose of the community forum, is to get that local, specific knowledge,” she said.

The community education forum is scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday and can be viewed online via Microsoft Teams. People can ask questions during the forum using the Teams chat function, as well as take part in polls. An exit survey also will be available on the HCPS website for one week following the forum.

That meeting will focus on elementary schools, and about 25 minutes will be allocated per region to discuss proposed changes, according to Doiron. A second forum on changes to middle and high school boundaries is scheduled for June 2.

Board member Dr. Roy Phillips said he hopes that Doiron and her colleagues, in light of the public comments about keeping neighborhoods together, “have heard the message that this is one thing we need to keep in mind moving forward.”

Doiron emphasized that the feedback expressed to the school board is “definitely the type of information that we are looking for.”

“We’re changing lines, we’re moving lines and nothing is set in stone yet — this is just a stopping point for us to take a moment and get some public feedback on the process,” she said of the community forums.

Board member Carol Mueller asked Doiron if planners have taken the economic status of various neighborhoods into account when proposing boundary adjustments.

Doiron said emphatically that economics were not “something that would have factored into any of the changes,” but planners are working to keep neighborhoods together and maintain “a certain level of balanced enrollment” among schools in regions of the county.

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“Maintaining community schools, maintaining walkability, was on the forefront of many of the discussions and will continue to be so,” he said of advisory team meetings.

Brown said planners are “far away” from submitting a recommendation to Superintendent Sean Bulson. The superintendent will hold public forums before he makes his recommendation to the school board in September, plus people can give input to the board before it makes the final decision next February.

Bulson addressed the timing issue raised during public comment, as many parents asked why HCPS is doing balancing enrollment during the pandemic.

“Clearly this is a challenging time, but there is never a good time,” said Bulson, who noted the school system was overdue for it when he became superintendent in July of 2018.

“It’s always a difficult thing, and it’s a very easy thing for boards of education and school systems to push it down the road, maybe for the next chance that it might be a little better,” he said.

Bulson cited factors such as moratoriums on new residential development in some elementary school districts where enrollment is well over capacity. He also stressed that providing equitable access to resources for all students is “a really crucial step” in balancing enrollment.

“We’re going to continue to focus on the quality of education and make sure that any changes that come from this, that we’re very thoughtful about the experience of those [students] who are staying and those who are moving,” he said.

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