Officials expect to have a series of recommendations on how Harford County Public Schools can balance enrollment throughout its 54 schools ready to present to Superintendent Sean Bulson, either by the end of this month or early July.
“We’ll be working with Dr. Bulson to create the next phase, next stage of our community engagement efforts, where the superintendent will engage the public to continue to receive input and feedback,” Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, said during a Board of Education meeting on Monday.
Brown and his staff have been working with a nearly 30-person advisory team, and staffers with contractor FLO Analytics, since January to develop maps with new boundaries in the attendance areas of local elementary, middle and high schools. The changes are meant to relieve overcrowding in schools that are above enrollment capacity and shift more students and resources to under-capacity schools.
Officials also have been hearing a lot of feedback from the community, through protests prior to school board meetings, during public comment sessions at board meetings and community forums. One forum on early proposals on elementary school attendance area changes happened in mid-April, as well as two more last week onproposed changes to middle and high school boundaries.
Board members heard public comments for close to two hours Monday evening, much of it from parents against changes that would shift their children away from schools in their neighborhoods. Board members have emphasized that proposed boundary changes are not set in stone and that the balancing enrollment process is still in the early stages.
Officials anticipate that Bulson would have his recommendation ready by this fall after hearing more public feedback, and then the board would make its decision next February — made after soliciting even more public input — with changes taking effect during the 2022-23 school year.
“Every day, we’re making revisions and modifications, reviewing input and feedback,” Brown said.
In addition to the public input, planners will get feedback from HCPS transportation staff, instructional staff, plus Harford County planning and zoning officials and they will review data on residential development in the county as they “fine tune and tweak” balancing enrollment scenarios, according to Brown.
“Hopefully, at the end of this month we will have recommendations that the advisory team is very comfortable with and can stand behind,” he said.
Then, planners will work with Bulson so the superintendent can ask questions and review proposed changes, prepare to hear public feedback and at the same time “charge the team to continue to refine . . . so that the scenarios and recommendations can even be further improved before the superintendent feels comfortable in developing his recommendation for the board,” according to Brown.
People can see current proposals for attendance area changes on an interactive map available on the Balancing Enrollment page on the HCPS website, as well as the minutes of the advisory team’s past eight meetings. Updated maps also have been released online after some advisory team meetings — the team’s next meeting is scheduled for June 16.
Board member David Bauer highlighted the early release of updates to the map as an effort to be as transparent as possible, even as many people have had negative reactions to proposed changes and expressed their sentiments in emails to board members and during public comment sessions.
“When I look at this, I see the process is working — there are tradeoffs in releasing maps earlier or later in the process,” Bauer said.
He noted that releasing updates as early as possible “gave us better transparency and more opportunities for public input, at the cost of this churn we see, and riling people up early and in many cases, unnecessarily.”
Many people who addressed the board Monday focused on change areas for middle and high schools, such as one that affects the Churchville area east of Route 136, between James Run south of Route 22 and between Coolbranch Run north of Route 22. Students in those communities attend Southampton Middle School and C. Milton Wright High School, both in Bel Air, and would shift to Aberdeen Middle and High School under the current maps.
Many of those speakers objected to splitting Churchville along Route 136 and moving students away from Southampton and C. Milton Wright, schools that they are familiar with.
Another block of speakers live in the Cedarday community in the Bel Air South area, and they objected to proposals for change area MHS-4 that would shift students from Patterson Mill Middle/High School to Southampton and C. Milton Wright.
“Balancing enrollment should not come at the negative impact of any community or our children,” said resident Meghan Perkins, whose children attend Homestead-Wakefield Elementary School and would feed into Patterson Mill if not redistricted.
Another resident, Shannon Poling, noted that children in Cedarday have been attending Patterson Mill since it opened in 2007, and there is a “short, two-minute ride” between the community and the school. Students would have to spend much more time on a bus if transferred to C. Milton Wright.
Poling stressed that shifting students between the two high schools to balance enrollment “is not a long-term solution and will result in another rezoning in the near future.”
“There are better options for communities located closer in proximity to C. Milton Wright before removing the kids from Cedarday, which is over 7 miles and 20 minutes away on a good day,” she said.
A number of community members have suggested to school officials and board members building new schools or expanding existing facilities, rather than balancing enrollment roughly every 10 to 15 years.
Board member Sonja Karwacki asked Brown to discuss those requests — Brown said earlier that planners are working with HCPS to “look at scenarios beyond the immediate balancing enrollment, to look at possibly the need for additional seats to accommodate future growth — that information will help to inform our future capital improvement program.”
He noted that state officials require local school systems to conduct a balancing enrollment process and make adjustments, such as using classroom seats available in adjoining attendance areas, before providing funding to build new schools.
“If there is growth that’s being projected, or if there were some areas that we could not address, then we would say, ‘We need another school,’ " Brown said.
Karwacki encouraged residents to not only share their concerns about residential growth and its impact on school capacity with school officials but also county government officials.
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“We have nothing to say about what is going on, in regard to planning and zoning,” she said of the school system.