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If the Howard County Public School System can balance student capacity in all schools as well as balance out students who participate in the free and reduced-price meals program, “we would improve education outcome,” according to Council Chairwoman Christiana Mercer Rigby.

“We have an opportunity now to balance capacity, and to better balance our FARMs capacity in all our schools and keep kids going to school close to their neighborhoods or closer to their neighborhoods,” Rigby said in an interview.

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In a joint news release Tuesday, Council members Rigby, Opel Jones and Deb Jung announced they are introducing a resolution next month asking for the school system to create a countywide integration plan to desegregate schools.

The announcement of the pending resolution was made exactly one week before schools Superintendent Michael Martirano is presenting his comprehensive redistricting plan that would go into effect for the 2020-2021 school year. Martirano will present his plan at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting.

The school system did not provide comment on the resolution due to the redistricting plan coming out next week.

“Currently school district boundaries in Howard County are drawn in a manner that concentrate students participating in the Free and Reduced Meals program [FARMS] into certain elementary, middle, and high schools,” the release states.

Rigby said the concentration is “happening in communities in Elkridge, Columbia and Laurel.”

Howard schools in Elkridge, Columbia and Laurel areas with FARMs rates at 40% and higher include:

  • Oakland Mills High in Columbia: 48%
  • Wilde Lake High in Columbia: 42%
  • Hammond High in Columbia: 40%
  • Lake Elkhorn Middle in Columbia: 52%
  • Harper’s Choice Middle in Columbia: 51%
  • Oakland Mills Middle in Columbia: 46%
  • Thomas Viaduct Middle in Hanover: 46%
  • Mayfield Woods Middle in Elkridge: 43%
  • Stevens Forest Elementary in Columbia: 65%
  • Phelps Luck Elementary in Columbia: 64%
  • Swansfield Elementary in Columbia: 62%
  • Laurel Woods Elementary in Laurel: 61%
  • Cradlerock Elementary in Columbia: 55%
  • Deep Run Elementary in Elkridge: 54%
  • Running Brook Elementary in Columbia: 52%
  • Bollman Bridge Elementary in Jessup: 50%
  • Bryant Woods Elementary in Columbia: 50%

The highest levels of FARMs students are found in the elementary schools.

Under the FARMs program, Howard schools provide free and reduced-price meals during the academic year for enrolled students as well as free lunches to any child age 18 and younger during winter, spring and summer vacations. Additionally, enrolled students can receive free college applications, reduced health insurance coverage, and reduced tuition for academic programs, among other things.

In 2018, there were more than 12,000 FARMs students of Howard’s nearly 56,000 student population, according to Maryland State Department of Education data.

The racial breakdown of the 2018 Howard FARMs students is:

  • Black: 5,813 students
  • Hispanic: 3,302 students
  • Asian: 1,578 students
  • White: 1,124 students
  • Two or more races: 584 students

County Executive Calvin Ball said he “recognize[s] we can do a better job of ensuring diversity and inclusion in all of Howard County.”

Ball said “a comprehensive redistricting approach that ensures the best teaching environment and to the best extent keeps neighborhoods together needs to be done and needs to be done as soon as possible.”

Rigby said in a statement, “For decades, Howard County public schools have been increasingly segregated by race and socioeconomic status.”

When asked if he would support the resolution, Councilman David Yungmann said he would not, saying, “I think we are overstepping our boundaries as a County Council.”

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However, Yungmann doesn’t object “to the FARMS rate being one of the criteria when setting boundary lines, but I think that’s been a goal in previous redistricting.”

Yungmann also said he “doesn’t disagree that schools have become somewhat segregated not by race but by socioeconomic status and so have neighborhoods.”

In Howard, there are 610 moderate-income housing units, apartments and townhomes that are rented and 287 units that are owned, according to Kelly Cimino, director of housing and community development.

Affordable housing, rented or owned, can be found in Columbia, Savage, Laurel, Elkridge and Jessup.

Added to the county code in 1996, in certain areas, developers are required to provide at least 10% of their units at moderate-income prices.

Some developers may have to provide 15% or as much as 25% of affordable housing units. The Department of Planning and Zoning determines the percentage in each area.

Over the years, the county has been adding the requirement to build affordable housing in different districts, Cimino said.

In some areas, developers can pay a fee instead of providing affordable housing. Approved in 2013 by the County Council, a fee-in-lieu can be paid for in certain districts. On July 1, the fee increased to $2.65 per square foot.

However, if “developers who build townhouses, apartments and condominiums cannot pay the fee-in-lieu, they must provide the housing,” Cimino said.

To qualify for affordable housing, a one-person household cannot earn more than $46,819 to rent a unit and no more than $62,425 to own. Going all the way up to a household of eight or more people, the maximum household income to rent is $88,287 and to own is $117,715.

Council members Liz Walsh, Jones and Jung did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Jones and Jung expressed their support for the resolution in Tuesday’s news release.

Rigby hopes the resolution is already part of the school system’s redistricting plan.

“This is not about the current board or the current superintendent,” Rigby said. “Let’s take this opportunity to really live out the values that we believe.”

The resolution will be introduced on Sept. 3 at the County Council’s legislative session.

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