A sea of green-clad Howard County residents chanting “Kids before politics” and “No one has to suffer” could be seen and heard on the edge of the school system’s central office building Tuesday evening ahead of a public hearing concerning the ongoing redistricting process.
Nearly 200 people gathered, many wearing green T-shirts with the phrases “Community and Equity” and “We shouldn’t have to choose” written across the front, part of a grassroots protest to voice their thoughts and concerns on redistricting.
Inside the Board of Education headquarters during the hearing, 69 community members, including parents and students, testified before the school board over a nearly four-hour period. Most of the testimony came from families and students in the Mt. Hebron High community or one of its feeder schools.
Jacob Hauf, a sophomore at Mt. Hebron, would move to Marriotts Ridge High next fall if the current proposal remains as is.
Mt. Hebron High, which originally was built as a middle school, is deemed one of the most crowded high schools in the county, according to school officials; however, Hauf said otherwise.
“As a student I don’t feel it [overcrowding]. I always have a seat, a textbook, and there’s always room in the cafeteria,” he said.
In August, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano presented a proposal for comprehensive redistricting to combat school overcrowding, address inequities in the distribution of students affected by poverty and establish a road map for the eventual opening of the county’s 13th high school.
The county school board is set to approve a plan Nov. 21.
Tuesday’s hearing, the first of three scheduled before the county school board, was on the same day county police confirmed that a death threat targeting Martirano was posted on social media by a 15-year-old sophomore at River Hill High School concerning redistricting.
The hearing Tuesday night was for families who currently attend Centennial, Howard, Mt. Hebron and Oakland Mills high schools, plus their respective feeder middle and elementary schools.
Logan Dunn, a sophomore at Mt. Hebron, testified in hopes that he won’t be moved to Marriotts Ridge High, highlighting his school’s diversity.
“I hear lots of people saying all of this is happening because there are people who think our schools aren’t diverse, but Mt. Hebron is,” he said. “For instance my soccer teammates are African American, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, Muslim. Everyone sits with different people at lunch and we hang out after school.”
Madeleine Phillips, a sophomore at Mt. Hebron, stressed the importance of allowing juniors next year to stay in their current high school due to the college application process.
If she stays at Mt. Hebron, Phillips’ teachers would be able to provide her “more thorough letters [of recommendation] as they would have known me for three years.” If she moves to a new school, she said, she would not have the time to build those same relationships in under a year with different teachers.
Christina Tiley, a teacher at Long Reach High who has children in Oakland Mills High and Middle schools, echoed Phillips’ concerns about college recommendation letters.
“We write thousands of letters of recommendation a year for these kids to go to school and they need us to give them a good recommendation,” Tiley said. “It’s not just about academics — it’s about how they grew from ninth grade to 11th grade, how much effort they are putting in, and how much they stayed after and how involved they are in things.”
Tiley “understand[s] the need” for redistricting, though, citing Long Reach High as a very crowded school.
Del. Terri Hill, who represents District 12, including Columbia and Ellicott City, spoke at the beginning of the hearing.
“Redistricting is always contentious and it often brings out the best in communities and willingness to advocate for ourselves and for our students and our families. And unfortunately it brings out a great deal of ugliness, too,” she said.
Hill touched upon the issue of addressing economic inequities within the county.
“One of the reasons we are here is because [of] previous Howard County councils, not school boards, but councils, have allowed our community … to become ghettoized, in many ways where we allow communities to be built that don’t have diversities of incomes and that creates the problem that unfortunately the school system is asked to deal with.”
Outside the public hearing, the protest was for all residents of Howard, not only those whose schools were being discussed.
Carol Myers, an Ellicott City resident, was protesting for her six grandchildren. A college student during the Vietnam anti-war era, she said she never felt compelled to protest until Tuesday.
Her grandchildren are being proposed to be sent to Wilde Lake High School instead of River Hill High. Myers is not against the redistricting process but is “angry” that her grandchildren would be bused past six other high schools in order to attend Wilde Lake.
“I think the plan is so poorly conceived that it needs to be scrapped and they need to start over,” she said.
The protest was shepherded by Ellicott City residents Bettina Wachter and Ligeia Zeruto.
“The intent itself [of the redistricting process] is beautiful,” Zeruto said. “I am against how this plan was made.”
There also was a walk in protest of the redistricting plan Saturday near The Mall in Columbia just days before the first public hearing on the issue.
Two more public hearings are scheduled for next week at the Board of Education headquarters in Ellicott City.
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The Sept. 24 hearing is for families whose children attend Atholton, Hammond, Long Reach or Wilde Lake high schools, or any of their feeder schools. On Sept. 27, families whose children attend Glenelg, Marriotts Ridge, Reservoir or River Hill or their feeder schools will have an opportunity to testify.