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Ten months after the Howard County Board of Education charged the superintendent to begin a comprehensive redistricting process, the final vote on a plan is scheduled for Thursday.

During a marathon Monday work session, the school board is expected to take a straw poll on the redistricting proposal.

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“At the end of the night, they have to make the tentative decision,” said Kathy Hanks, a school board administrator.

For the past two months, the school board has conducted eight work sessions and voted on motions creating the guidelines for the redistricting plan. They are expected to complete that work Monday.

From there, school planning staff will draw up the proposed map and report — derived from action during the redistricting work sessions — to be presented and voted on Thursday, Hanks said.

At this point ahead of Thursday’s vote, there is no final number of students who will be moved for the 2020-21 academic year.

When asked whether the school board’s working plan meets the intentions of Superintendent Michael Martirano’s proposal — to address equity and relieve overcrowding — schools spokesman Brian Bassett said: “The board had continued to keep those two priorities at the forefront of their work.”

During the work sessions, school board members repeatedly asked as motions were put on the floor whether the change would affect a school’s population — from the sending to the receiving school, as well as how it would affect the Free and Reduced Meals program — before voting on it.

School board members Kirsten Coombs, Christina Delmont-Small, Jennifer Mallo and Chao Wu did not want to comment for this story ahead of this week’s vote. Chairwoman Mavis Ellis and Sabina Taj provided statements, and Vicky Cutroneo posted an email she sent to her fellow board members on Facebook.

“The Board of Education has worked tirelessly over many months to craft a redistricting plan that improves capacity and better balances FARMs rates while incorporating the considerable feedback we received from the community,” Ellis said in a statement. "I’m hopeful that the board will later this week come to consensus on the plan.”

On Saturday morning, Cutroneo emailed board members requesting to either delay Thursday’s vote or schedule additional work sessions.

“I am deeply concerned about continuing to make decisions that are not fully informed/vetted, rushed and made late at night in order to satisfy a timeline,” Cutroneo wrote in a message that she also posted on her school board Facebook page.

“I’m formally requesting that we add more work sessions and/or extend the timeline. I am asking for reconsideration and your flexibility,” Cutroneo wrote.

School board member Sabina Taj issued a statement over the weekend underlining the gravity of what lies ahead for the board.

"Over the next week and coming years, the country will be watching to see if one of the richest counties in the U.S. with one of the best school systems allows this inequity to remain or comes together as a community to say this will not stand. History will judge us accordingly.”

This process started with Cooperative Strategics LLC — an independent consulting firm based in Irvine, California — members of the Attendance Area Committee and school system staff spending the summer working on the superintendent’s proposal. Community meetings were also held.

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In August, Martirano presented a recommendation. His proposal looked 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.

After his presentation, the proposal fell into the hands of the seven-member school board.

During the first 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.

However, as the process unfolded, Taj made a motion Nov. 5 to revert to Martirano’s proposal; it failed 5-2.

During Thursday’s work session, Taj said: “I am more comfortable going with something that the consultants have thought through, have had months to look through, [and] that the community is aware of.

“I don’t know what to say. I just think this is a very flawed process.”

Mallo and Wu presented their own proposals during the second work session in late October. Throughout the work sessions, portions of Martirano’s proposals have been discussed.

Wu previously said during the Oct. 30 work session, “As a board, we want to work together to find the best possible scenario and relieve overcrowding, achieve a socioeconomic balance and be cost-sensitive. We should put our children in the center of every decision we are making.”

Mallo said during Thursday’s work session, “We haven’t been given any perfect plan so we got to go with what we got, barring brilliant suggestions from the [school board] dais.”

To begin tackling overcrowding in schools, the school board decided to go from east to west, as the most populated schools are in the eastern portion of the county, particularly in Columbia.

Howard High has nearly 2,000 students this year, reaching a capacity level of approximately 140%. The system’s target capacity for schools is 90% to 110% capacity.

During Thursday’s work session, Cutroneo said, “I think we missed our chance to actually help Howard by not redistricting in the past.”

One of the biggest differences between Martirano’s proposal and what the school board is developing is the movement of students between River Hill High and Wilde Lake High — a proposal in Martirano’s plan that sparked community outcry and opposition.

Martirano had proposed to move 276 River Hill High students to Wilde Lake High, and 132 students from Wilde Lake to River Hill.

As of Monday morning, the school board has made no motions to move any students between the two high schools.

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Howard residents have been very vocal as the school board met about redistricting. About 580 people testified at seven public hearings. Residents have also held protests and formed polygon and neighborhood groups to try to influence the process. The work sessions were always packed with audience members carrying signs and wearing T-shirts for specific groups.

Community members can submit written testimony until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

“We are very happy to see the participation from our community, for you guys to come out and share your opinions through your signs, through your email, through your telephone calls, through your texts. We appreciate that,” Ellis said Thursday.

During a September public hearing, Vice Chairwoman Coombs urged the community to “exercise civility and be kind through this emotional process.”

“Our children are watching and listening, and it is up to the adults to be a positive role model," she said. “Do not demonize the other side, listen to people patiently and please, please treat everyone with respect as you would deserve.”

Delmont-Small said during Thursday’s work session: “We are ripping communities apart … moving communities around like pieces on a chessboard.

“We are pitting community members against community members, and this is not how I thought Howard County behaved.”

Delmont-Small would “prefer” to keep communities together.

“This is an imperfect process, we all know that, but at some point we’ve got to say that we have to try to do better. And I personally don’t feel that we have done that,” she said Thursday.

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