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Community group releases alternative Howard County redistricting plan

On the eve of the unveiling of Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano's recommendations for school redistricting, the community group United for HoCo Schools released its alternative plan for balancing enrollment in Howard County schools, with ideas such as open enrollment and partial redistricting.

The plan was crafted by parents from across the county, and includes four main points: delayed county-wide redistricting, open enrollment, partial redistricting and programmatic solutions, such as language immersion and career development centers.

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"It's a reasonable solution to a bad situation," said Cynthia Fikes, one of the plan's authors and a member of the group.

Titled the "Collaborative Community Plan," Fikes said one of the reasons she decided to help put together an alternative set of solutions was because she saw a lack of community outreach and transparency by the school board and Attendance Area Committee during the process of analyzing possible solutions for redistricting. She said a key takeaway of her group's work is the need for greater communication and community input in the process.

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Unlike the plan devised by the Attendance Area Committee, this plan calls for a partial redistricting, to be completed only as needed to alleviate severe overcrowding. The AAC's plan would redistrict 10 percent of students across all grade levels, moving a total of 5,656 students.

The Attendance Area Committee released their latest recommendations on redistricting, following interim superintendent Michael Martirano's proposal to fast-track High School 13.

The community plan would also limit redistricting shifts so that no more than 20 to 25 percent of a school's student population could be moved. Both plans call for limiting the shift of high school students to only rising ninth-graders, and the AAC recommended also exempting rising fifth- and eighth-grade students fom redistricting.

The United for HoCo School's plan calls for the opening of not only High School 13 in 2022, but a 14th high school in 2023. It also stops comprehensive redistricting except at the elementary school level until after the completion of High School 13.

"Elementary redistricting needs to happen, that's moving forward. We're looking at stopping the major disruption until we have some knowns in place," Fikes said. "When is the school coming, so we know if open enrollment is a viable option? It makes sense to get that information and then move forward."

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As an alternative to large-scale redistricting, the plan includes the implementation of open enrollment at the high school level, which would allow students to apply for attendance at a high school outside their school district in the county, as long as the desired building is below school capacity level. Fikes said that in this plan, each high school would offer different magnet programs to draw students from across the county for specific interests, such as the arts.

In an open enrollment plan, students would not have to apply to attend the school they were assigned to in their district, and could not be bumped from their school for an open enrollment student. The move to a different school would be non-transferrable and be allowed once per student, with a commitment through graduation.

Members of the Howard County’s Planning Board said they were “encouraged” by the plans presented in the schools system’s fiscal 2019 capital budget at their meeting on Thursday night.

A second portion of the group's report includes recommendations for the Attendance Area Committee process, which Fikes said was deeply flawed and allowed the committee's work to occur "in a vacuum." The committee, which is made up of volunteers who applied from across the county, met weekly beginning in June to develop possible redistricting strategies.

The report takes issue with four main aspects of the committee and its process, including membership, policy, data and communication. The group states that the committee was not representative of the demographics of the entire county, that there were errors with the committee's data and that not enough effort was made for community outreach and feedback. Howard County Public Schools System did not respond to a request for comment by Monday afternoon.

"There is no happy answer to redistricting, but at least people need a voice," Fikes said.



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