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Howard school board, County Council discuss ongoing redistricting process, ‘desegregation’ resolution

The Howard County Council and Board of Education met Monday to discuss the ongoing redistricting process, the school system’s impending capital budget and other issues.

Part of the discussion at the joint-quarterly meeting at the school board’s headquarters in Ellicott City was the resolution calling for the school system to create a countywide schools integration plan as a part of redistricting.

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In August, schools Superintendent Michael Martirano presented a proposal for a 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.

Also in August, three council members — Christiana Mercer Rigby, Deb Jung and Opel Jones — introduced a resolution calling on the school system to develop a plan to “desegregate” its schools by socioeconomic factors during the redistricting process. They said the way certain school boundary lines are drawn concentrates students enrolled in the free and reduced-price meals program, or FARMs.

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Of the school system’s nearly 58,000 student population, 22.5% of students countywide are enrolled in FARMs.

A decade ago, the countywide FARMs rate was 11%, according to Martirano. He said the rate looks like it will increase to 32% over the next 10 years.

The school board is scheduled to approve a redistricting plan Nov. 21.

“Keep in mind … for the last 10 to 15 years, the majority of redistricting has been school-specific. We have [never] engaged in a comprehensive redistricting in this county,” Martirano said Monday.

Martirano’s plan calls for moving 7,400 students to different schools. In 2017, he recommended moving 8,800 students during the 2018-19 academic year, although, in the end, less than 1,500 students were moved at the elementary and middle school levels.

School board member Jen Mallo suggested Howard County mirror what Anne Arundel County Public Schools has recently announced by forming a task force or a commission between the school board and the council to tackle student achievement gaps by looking at housing and transportation.

“Let’s commit to our community we will do this together and not operate in silos,” Mallo said. “If we are going to move forward and make our system better, let’s do it together.”

Questions from the council Monday for school system officials about redistricting included transportation costs and the practice of grandfathering in juniors and seniors at their current school.

According to school board Policy 6010, rising seniors are exempt from redistricting. The school board can decide on other exemptions, including not moving rising fifth graders, eighth graders and high school juniors, Martirano said.

The school system is projecting transportation costs will be around $1.1 million after the redistricting process is complete, according to David Ramsay, the school system’s transportation director.

The costs center on the price to contract buses, which currently stands at $68,000 per bus; gas mileage based on the average cost per mile; and students who are classified as walkers but will be bused under the new plan.

“The most challenging cost estimate is the one that involves our policy when we determine how many students want to stay at their school,” Ramsay said.

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On average, the school bus routes will increase by 2 miles one way, for a total of 4 miles each school day, he said.

Currently, there are 560 students who are designated as walkers to their respective schools, Ramsay said. The school system estimates two to three buses will be needed to transport these students next year.

Last week, the school board unanimously approved the fiscal 2021 $56.01 million capital budget request and put Talbott Springs Elementary and Hammond High’s projects back on the priority list after both were removed earlier this month.

However, funding for the replacement elementary school and renovation and addition at the high school needs to be secured by December before the projects can move forward.

“We are going to need to come together and figure out a solution that is going to really involve talking to the community about what we want to invest in,” Rigby said.

The council has a bill on the table, which is expected to pass, to increase the one-time fee assessed on new homes from $1.32 per square foot to $6.80 per square foot. The fee’s revenue — which is charged to developers who build new homes — directly funds the school system’s construction, renovation and maintenance costs.

Jung hopes the impact fee bill will help fund more capital budget needs for the school system. Revenue from the fee hike is estimated at $150 million across 10 years, or $15 million a year.

Martirano had lowered the capital budget request for fiscal 2021 from $135.6 million to $56.01 million after learning of anticipated funding from the county.

The county is expected to fund $41 million to $48 million of the school system’s request, county budget administrator Holly Sun previously said. The state will provide the remaining money, which is expected to be around $10 million, according to a schools spokesman.

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