A motion to continue the ongoing Howard County school redistricting process by starting from Superintendent Michael Martirano’s recommended proposal failed at a Board of Education work session Tuesday night.
School board member Sabina Taj made a motion early Tuesday night to go back to Martirano’s proposal. During the first work session Oct. 17, the school board reached a consensus without needing to vote to use current boundary lines as a starting point when making redistricting decisions.
Martirano presented a recommendation in August to move nearly 7,400 students to combat school overcrowding, address inequities in the distribution of students affected by poverty and establish a road map for the county’s 13th high school, in Jessup.
School board member Christina Delmont-Small said Martirano’s proposal “was a recommendation, which was the role of the superintendent, was to provide us, the Board of Education with a recommendation.”
Before making the motion, Taj read aloud an email she sent to the school board, expressing her concerns about introducing new plans and not using the superintendent’s recommendation that was created with assistance from Cooperative Strategies LLC, an independent consulting firm based in Irvine, California.
During the Oct. 28 work session, school board members Jennifer Mallo and Chao Wu presented separate, formal plans for high school redistricting.
“While I appreciate the commitment, dedication and hard work of my colleagues ... none of us are experts in geospatial analysis. None of us do this for a living. None of us are equipped with the skills that these gentlemen [Cooperative Strategies consultants] are equipped with and that we hired them to do,” Taj read from her email.
“To my mind, the current process leaves us open to the perception that personal agendas are at work,” she read.
Taj’s motion failed, 5-2, with only school board Chairwoman Mavis Ellis also voting in favor.
Ellis, who thought the school board would start with Martirano’s recommendation and tweak it, said, “There will be no perfect plan.”
“It is the nature of the beast,” she added.
Taj said, “Coming up with new plans every hour is unsettling for the community.”
Residents of Woodmark, a neighborhood in western Ellicott City, attended Tuesday’s work session.
“To my mind, the current process leaves us open to the perception that personal agendas are at work.”— Howard County School Board member Sabina Taj
Woodmark’s “big overarching concern is new plans are being proposed within the past week and there’s no opportunity for face-to-face public testimony [anymore] and we feel that is an injustice,” Nancy McAllister, an Ellicott City resident, said before Tuesday’s work session.
“For us, we have a real problem with Jennifer Mallo’s plan … we believe it is not a sustainable long-term solution for our community. We believe we will be moved again,” said McAllister, who has one child at Folly Quarter Middle, one child at River Hill High and a River Hill High graduate.
In response to Taj’s motion, Wu said Tuesday: “I don’t think we are disregarding any plan. I am not promoting my plan; I just provided another perspective.”
Mallo said the argument that polygons not originally proposed to move now might do so “is a bit of a red herring.”
With any plan, “there will always be polygons moved that weren’t proposed initially,” she added.
A polygon is a cluster of neighborhoods and areas of the county that attend certain elementary, middle and high schools.
Delmont-Small presented a diagram Tuesday night that would move the school system toward a feeder system for all schools. Working with the school system’s Office of Planning and Cooperative Strategies consultants, Delmont-Small’s presentation was for “discussion purposes only.”
“I wanted us to see what it could look like,” Delmont-Small said.
Delmont-Small is working toward a series of feeds that have certain elementary schools attending certain middle schools and then carrying over to high schools.
Continuing on from previous work sessions, the school board members analyzed polygons to further chip away at high school redistricting.
While no motions were made regarding moving students from the current high schools, a formal motion passed to look at high schools from east to west, which has already been happening. A second motion failed to look at high schools west to east.
Multiple motions were passed to run test scenarios on various polygons before the school board makes any concrete redistricting decisions for high schools. Results of the test scenarios are scheduled to be presented at Thursday’s afternoon work session.
At the first work session, a motion passed unanimously to not move rising juniors from their current school; rising seniors were never considered to be moved per school board policy. An amendment was added that rising juniors’ parents would need to opt in for bus transportation.
Howard community members, parents and students can submit written testimony until Nov. 19.
“I think they [school board members] are being very transparent. ... They are trying their hardest, [but] we are running out of time.”— Francoise Jakobsson, a parent who lives in western Ellicott City
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Tuesday’s work session was packed with community members, many of whom gathered outside the school board headquarters hours before the meeting to secure a seat.
Francoise Jakobsson, who lives in western Ellicott City and is part of the Woodmark group, said the redistricting process is “becoming rushed.”
The school board is “coming up with their own plans at the 11th hour,” said Jakobsson, who has two children who graduated from River Hill and two children who are Triadelphia Ridge Elementary students.
“I think they [school board members] are being very transparent. ... They are trying their hardest, [but] we are running out of time.”
Most audience members were wearing various redistricting themed shirts and holding signs of either their polygon numbers, phrases such as “Keep Community Feeds Together,” or signs with a drawn smiling face on one side and a frowning face on the other.
Remaining work sessions are scheduled for Thursday at 1 p.m., before the school board’s regular meeting at 4 p.m., and then Nov. 12, 14 and 18, all to begin at 6:30 p.m.
The school board is scheduled to vote on a final plan Nov. 21.