Sixty-five thousand students may find themselves in the middle of aneconomic tug of war between county and school system officials.
The County Council's insistence that school officials consider redistricting -- creation of new school-attendance boundary lines -- startedas a way to save money on school construction and renovation. It is threatening to become a battle joined by distraught parents concernedover its implications.
"I'm not sure the county knows what they are asking for," said Anne M. Young, who chairs the countywide Community Advisory Council. "Ican see some merit in thinking about it, but I'm not sure it's feasible to do. I would think it would be an extremely emotional issue with the parents."
Parents say they do not want their children in themiddle of a political football game. Some call the redistricting proposal political suicide for council members who support it. Others want to know what will happen to special education students and how matters of long-term planning for growth will be addressed.
"I think it is too personal and political an issue to be done effectively," said Carolyn M. Roeding, president of the countywide Parent Teacher Association, which has 18,000 members. "People are averse to change, andthey will fight. We went through redistricting before, and the outcry from parents became almost vigilante-style."
Board policy requires that hearings be scheduled in the area of every school affected bya redistricting plan. Parents must be told the plan's details, then be allowed to air views. The process generally runs from December to April, which would leave too little time to address such a comprehensive plan for the next year.
Not all of the differences stem from nuts-and-bolts of the plan. Some are more philosophical in nature.
School officials are criticizing the council's recommendations, saying it does not address educational or social considerations. "I think the dollar only means so much," board President Nancy Gist said. "My feeling is that their plan is too simplistic. It is more than just shuffling numbers. You have to ask what you are losing. Are you taking a community and dividing it? There is so much of family living that is tied into schools."
But county officials insist they have heard no good reason why the plan -- which county auditors estimate could save between $80 million and $100 million in construction costs -- can't work.
The council has proposed realigning attendance boundaries-- primarily of middle, junior and high schools -- to fill all vacant classroom seats. County officials say the school system has more high schools and 10,000 fewer students than it did in the mid-1970s.
"The only thing we're saying is that we can save capital project money if we make adjustments with that (redistricting plan) in mind," assistant county Auditor Bruce Emge said. "I think it could possibly work. It is controversial, and there is a lot of concern, but a reasonable criteria established through computer simulation (for new school boundaries) may make it difficult to challenge.
"It would solve the equity problems if schools are filled to capacity. Another plus is there would be less variations in the sizes of schools for athletic programs."
School board members' most heated complaints, however, are reserved for the method the county used to make its wishes known. They complain that much-needed construction money is being held hostage to ensure the school system's cooperation.
The school most immediately affected is North County High, formed by the merger of Andover and Brooklyn Park. Most of the $16.7 million needed to renovate theLindale Junior High building to house North County is being held by the County Council until a formal response is made to its redistricting proposal.
Plans for Meade Area Middle, planned to ease overcrowding in West County, as well as plans for a new high school in the area,
could be scrapped. And parents will have to wait to see ninth-graders enter Broadneck Senior, which must be expanded to comply withthe county's nine-12 grade alignment for high schools. Money for this project also is being held up by the county.
School officials say they have no clear direction from the county on what to expect. Andcounty officials have difficulty agreeing on what they want the board to do.
"Personally, I believe we deserved more professional courtesy than we were given from the council," School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton said. "It is not clear whether it is a request or a demand."
Lorton and Gist are awaiting formal notification from the county on how they should proceed and what must be done to release the money. Both point out that three redistricting studies have already been done on county schools -- most recently in 1986.
But as the heatfrom parents mounts, so does the political pressure.
Already, freshman County Councilwoman Diane Evans, R-Severna Park, whose districtincludes Broadneck High and who has been a frequent and vocal criticof the school board, has begun softening her stance.
"I was one of two people who objected to tying North County to redistricting, George Bachman (whose district includes North County) was the other," Evans said. "My feeling is that the school board should proceed with building North County and Broadneck. I wanted us to keep our options open. To tie our hands as well as the school board's wasn't a sensible approach.
"Building North County is separate and apart from redistricting. It would be a smart move for the Board of Education to explore redistricting, but as I talk to board members, I understand that it is not something they can do overnight. I would like them to be able to develop a plan and to decide whether it is an issue they will beable to tackle. Maureen Lamb got the ball rolling, but George and I said we didn't think it was a good idea.
"Those of us who feel it is a separate issue now have to convince our colleagues that they areseparate issues. We as a council need to work together to get thingsstraightened out."
Lamb had no comment.
Evans, whose election campaign was based largely on making the school board more accountable, admits she has homework to do.
"They need an opportunity to review our request," she said of the Board of Education. "They also havepolicies we need to be aware of. There is a lot we don't understand.
Both sides are scheduled to meet June 18 to discuss the logisticsof the redistricting plan.