More time needed for redistricting plan

As a retired family physician, I have observed that my local community, Howard County, appears to be acting as a dysfunctional family. I wish to comment on this using the lens of one of the principle tenets of medicine, primum non nocere: first, to do no harm.

  • Prove that something does good before you implement. Some smart people think they know what is best based on their logic or emotions. Often, we are wrong.
  • Know the harms of an intervention, both intended and unintended, before deciding if the benefits outweigh the harms.

In addition, given that resources are limited, it behooves us to try to use the most efficient method of accomplishing the good. This will allow for the unused resources to be available to accomplish more good.

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The Howard County Board of Education is in the process of redrawing school boundaries. The superintendent’s plan takes some steps to balance the percent of students in each school that participates in the FARMs (free and reduced-price meals) program. I do not know if the goal of this proposal is to address the achievement gap between low- and higher-income children, to desegregate the schools or to just produce favorable statistics.

Since this plan was announced, there has been a wealth of feedback from the community. This has included a little praise but mostly concerns that the plan will not actually help close the achievement gap, will cause significant harms and that positive results could be better (more effectively and efficiently) addressed through other programs.

The plan calls for some students to leave a Title 1 school to move to one without this designation. This could result in losing the services that Title 1 pays for. There is concern that the increased cost of transportation will require cuts in other line items of the budget and, thus, educational services.

Another area of concern is the mental health effects of transferring schools. Some students might develop more resilience and ability to develop new friends. Others might lose their safety net and this could increase their anxiety, depression and, at the worse, it could increase suicidal ideation and attempts.

I believe the current timeline for making a decision is too short. The superintendent announced his plan Aug. 22 and the Board of Education plans to make a final decision on Nov. 21. I believe the community would benefit from a longer period of time that should include at least the following studies:

  • What good are we trying to do? Will our plan produce the desired good? We should clarify the goals of the boundary changes. Are we trying to close an achievement gap and/or desegregate the schools and/or achieve another purpose? What are the measurable accomplishments we will measure to determine success? Have similar programs been tried elsewhere and if so, with what results?
  • What is the possible harm a plan could cause?
  • Are there other ways of achieving the desired effects? Which are most cost-effective?

It is likely that the root cause(s) and solution(s) of social-economic needs in Howard County will need to be addressed by the entire community and not just the Board of Education. This could include changes to zoning laws, rules on how to develop the county and our overall budget.

I suggest that leadership of this process should fall to our county executive, Mr. Calvin Ball.

Governing can be easy. Good governance can be complex.

Jeffrey Wetstone

Columbia

Trust Hickory Ridge Village Center plans

In his letter on the Kimco redevelopment plan for the Hickory Ridge Village Center (Sept. 26), Roger Lawson made several statements that should be put into a broader context. Mr. Lawson stated that “the plan was overwhelmingly rejected in a poll of the community.”

The facts are these: In 2015, the village board did a survey for an earlier version of the Kimco plan. The board got 639 usable responses from the 4,772 households in Hickory Ridge, a response rate of 13.4%. One question asked was does the Kimco plan meet New Town zoning criteria? Answering, 56.6% said no and 43.4% said yes. Bottom line: 7.6% of the households in Hickory Ridge are on record as saying the plan does not meet zoning requirements. The vast silent majority have expressed no opinion on the Kimco plan.

Mr. Lawson calls into question the legitimacy of decisions by the county’s Design Advisory Panel and Planning Board, both of which considered the Kimco plan during public hearings and approved it.

Who is likely to be more objective in determining the long-term worth of a development plan? The private citizens and professionals the county has employed to evaluate these plans, or homeowners in Clemens Crossing who want to keep an apartment building out of their neighborhood of single-family homes?

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In 2014, the Columbia Association with the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning and the Howard County Economic Development Authority commissioned a study of Columbia’s village centers. That study warned of an existential threat to the “grocery store as anchor” idea, a threat that has only become more extreme in the years since. The marketing study says:

“To a large degree, the ongoing viability of the village centers is interrelated with the stability and density of the residential markets in Columbia, as residents are the ‘spending engine’ that will sustain retail in the village centers.

“Without more residential density near village centers, market-based growth in the commercial sectors will not continue.”

Given the competitiveness of the grocery-store market in Columbia, it’s hard not to see the virtues in Kimco’s $80 million, proactive offer to redevelop a village center that could use help right now.

George Clack

Columbia

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