After nine packed work sessions, several protests, thousands of pages of comments, and scrutiny of neighborhoods and school maps, the Howard County Board of Education voted Thursday to move about 5,400 students to new schools for the 2020-21 academic year, according to the school system.
With all but one of 55 motions approved, the board’s plan moves to balance the level of poverty across the county’s schools by moving 2,827 elementary, 568 middle and 2,007 high school students, capping a contentious redistricting process.
The motion that failed would have moved students out of Clarksville Middle School to Lime Kiln Middle.
“Board members, we have just completed a long, arduous comprehensive redistricting process,” Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said Nov. 21. “This is the largest redistricting effort in Howard County’s history ... undoing nearly a decade worth of overcrowding at many of [our] schools, [and] advancing socioeconomic equity across all schools, and yet we still have more work to do.”
Every plan is “a compromise, we have competing goals,” said school board member Jennifer Mallo, who presented an alternative proposal during the process.
“The plan we have approved tonight moves less students than were originally proposed," Mallo said, “… has less dramatic improvements in the deconcentration of poverty than was originally proposed.”
Community residents lined up in the morning Nov. 21, hours before the meeting’s 4 p.m. start, to get a coveted seat inside for the final vote. Many residents carried signs and wore T-shirts, representing various neighborhoods. Those who did not get a seat waited in line during the meeting and were allowed in one by one if someone else left.
Fen Han, whose daughter is a River Hill High School student, said the stress she felt from the process was affecting her health.
Her daughter, like all other River Hill students, is exempt from the redistricting, but they are “concerned about the whole community,” Han said.
“We shouldn’t have to choose” between “community and equity,” she said, a quote printed on green shirts worn by numerous protesting parents in attendance.
The board approved exemptions allowing for rising juniors, eighth and fifth graders to remain at their current schools and their parents to opt in for bus transportation — the transportation cost was estimated at $1.9 million, according to David Ramsay, the school system’s transportation director. While rising seniors are exempted from redistricting by board policy, parents still need to opt in for transportation.
The cost, also factoring in students who were walkers and now will be bused, is “a very conservative estimation,” Ramsay said.
“As we start to gather information, we believe that number will improve, so it will not be that expensive,” he said.
Two motions failed to exempt rising sophomores from being redistricted.
“We are redistricting and somebody has to move,” said Chairwoman Mavis Ellis, who voted against the motions, "and by exempting rising seniors, juniors and sophomores, who is going to be moving to reduce the capacity?”
A motion passed unanimously to also exempt high school students who are enrolled in the 30- or 60-credit JumpStart programs, where students take courses at Howard Community College.
The board’s approved plan significantly scales back Martirano’s initial proposal of sending 7,396 of the district’s 59,000 students to different schools.
In August, Martirano presented his proposal with three goals in mind: alleviate capacity problems, balance student poverty levels among schools, and establish a road map for the 13th high school, in Jessup.
The approved moves affect the district’s 74 schools come September. Three schools with specializations — Homewood Center, Cedar Lane School and the Applications and Research Laboratory — were not part of the process.
“I think to say this has been an extremely frustrating process for the community and myself as a board member is an understatement,” school board member Christina Delmont-Small said. “The redistricting process is broken. I believe we have failed our students, our parents and our community.”
Clemens Crossing Elementary School parents rejoiced for about two minutes after a decision to move their neighborhoods to Bryant Woods Elementary failed.
After taking a brief break, the board came back and reversed the decision.
Vice Chairwoman Kirsten Coombs said, through tears, that not moving the Clemens Crossing students would have affected the entire plan.
Wearing bright orange shirts, parents whose children attend Clemens Crossing Elementary abruptly left the meeting after the decision.
Julie Hotopp said Clemens Crossing was “put in at the last minute” without enough time for parents to give testimony.
“My son is going to be isolated,” she said.
The motion, which failed during a work session earlier this month, was not part of Martirano’s original proposal.
Parent Mark van Buskirk said parents’ reaction to the reversal was “heartbreaking.”
He said his neighborhood, One Dorsey Hall, was “thrown in after public testimony."
One Dorsey Hall is a group of neighborhoods being moved from Northfield Elementary School to Running Brook Elementary and from Dunloggin Middle School to Wilde Lake Middle School. The move was not included in Martirano’s original plan.
However, van Buskirk is OK with his children attending Running Brook Elementary, Wilde Lake Middle and Wilde Lake High because it’s the three same schools that he and his wife attended.
“We met on the school bus for Running Brook. I was 8 [years old] and she was 7 [years old],” van Buskirk said.
However, van Buskirk said, “The point [of his frustration] is they are ripping out the heart of our community.
“This isn’t OK, moving things that were never on the table.”
The redistricting effort began Jan. 24, when the school board voted to charge Martirano with the systemwide effort.
“We have [never] engaged in a comprehensive redistricting in this county,” Martirano said Sept. 23.
The process began in June with the release of long-term enrollment projections and the hiring of Cooperative Strategics LLC — an independent consulting firm based in Irvine, California.
The firm, which cost the school system approximately $400,000 to assist in the redistricting from start to finish, served “as a neutral facilitator,” Martirano said in June.
In the summer, the consultants oversaw the work of the Attendance Area Committee, a panel drawn from the county and its schools and charged with redrawing school zones. The consultants responded to questions, tested alternative scenarios and led community input meetings.
After Martirano presented his recommendation, the process fell into the school board’s hands. The consultants stayed on, attending and participating in all work sessions throughout the fall to ensure the changes were meeting the original objectives of increasing equity and diminishing overcrowding.
In the inaugural October work session, the school board reached a consensus without needing to vote to use current boundary lines as a starting point, instead of beginning with Martirano’s proposal, when making redistricting decisions.
As the process unfolded, school board member Sabina Taj made a motion Nov. 5 to revert to the superintendent’s proposal; it failed 5-2.
Besides moving students, the school board worked to balance poverty rates between schools, a prime goal of Martirano’s plan.
Research has shown that one of the most effective ways to increase student achievement is to balance the levels of poverty across schools.
In the approved plan, the levels of low-income students were reduced at about a dozen elementary schools, nine middle schools and three high schools. At about five elementary schools where students are wealthier, the poverty rates increased.
Few school systems around the country — particularly large ones like Howard — attempt to move thousands of students to achieve a better balance across socioeconomic groups.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made it difficult for schools to assign students based on race. So the Howard County initiative was being watched to see whether a relatively liberal area would support changes based on socioeconomics.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, who “purposely did not get involved,” in the redistricting, said he hopes the county can come together after the contentious process.
“This is a necessary process for counties like Howard County in order to better manage class sizes and capacity rates, balanced with our long-term plans for building new schools and providing the proper public facilities to serve our population," Ball said.
A major difference between the board’s two plans and Martirano’s was whether hundreds of students at River Hill High and Wilde Lake High would be moved — a proposal in the school chief’s plan that sparked community outcry and opposition. No students from those schools will be moved.
The potential move dominated public hearings, with mostly River Hill parents expressing their disfavor. Nearly 580 Howard residents testified at seven public hearings during the fall.
Protests also were held and neighborhood groups formed to attempt to influence the process. Work sessions were packed, filled with signs from the audience, many of whom wore T-shirts for specific groups.
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Many community members expressed their frustrations and concerns online in the Facebook group Howard County School Redistricting Opposition.
Clarksville resident Steve Keller, whose first grader is not being moved, created the group as a way, he said, “to bring people together to discuss the redistricting plan … to discuss many of its flaws.”
What started out with 150 members the first day has grown to nearly 5,000.
“The positive that has come from the group is bringing people together. [There are] so many diverse people from the county” in the group, Keller said.
After the vote, the group’s name will be changed to Howard County Neighbors United to keep residents engaged on school-centric issues.
“People’s eyes have been opened,” Keller said. "They need to be engaged about school and local county government issues.”
Baltimore Sun Media reporters Taylor DeVille and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.