After three hours of debate, the Howard County school board last night approved a staff recommendation to redistrict three neighborhoods in Columbia to Wilde Lake High School in 1994 and another Columbia neighborhood to the new western high school in 1996.
The five-member board voted 3-1, with one member absent, to send students from Longfellow, Hobbit's Glen and Beaverbrook from over-enrolled Centennial High School to Wilde Lake, now under-enrolled by about 100 students; and to send students from the Dorsey Hall community to the new high school.
The board's decision was influenced by County Executive Charles I. Ecker's recent request for the school system to cut $15 million from its $45 million proposed capital budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1.
Mr. Ecker's request squashed optimism that Centennial High School would have an addition built to accommodate more students and spare some communities from being redistricted.
The four board members debated for hours the Wilde Lake proposal and another staff proposal that would redistrict Dorsey Hall and Longfellow to Wilde Lake and the Swansfield Elementary School neighborhoods in the Wilde Lake district to the new western high school.
The Dorsey Hall proposal involved busing Swansfield students who otherwise would have walked to school.
Board member Deborah Kendig is recuperating from major surgery and did not attend the meeting.
School board Chairman Dana Hanna, who changed his mind late in the meeting, told Dorsey Hall parents that the decision could be changed if budgetary factors dictate so.
The most emotional plea to approve the Dorsey Hall proposal came from board member Sandra French, who favored filling the 1996 western high school with Swansfield students, most of whom are from low income families, to create a diverse student body.
"The new school coming on line . . . could be our chance to provide a microcosm in Howard County, a true mix of population," she said. "We could really make it work.
"I never grew up in a multicultural environment," she said. "I feel as if I've lost something, and I want that for my child."
Mr. Hanna said he supported the Wilde Lake proposal because it was late in the meeting and a decision had to be made.
"I don't feel great loss at switching my decision," he said. "I will admit I was very bothered at [busing] walking students from their present high school."
He had earlier rejected sending students from the mostly white Dorsey Hall neighborhood to the western high school, saying it would create questions in the future as to why students from the neighborhood were being bused past two high schools closer to their homes.
Board members Susan Cook and Linda Johnston opposed the Dorsey Hall proposal because it would bus students from low-income families, who otherwise would have walked to school.
"It just rubs me the wrong way to put walkers on buses," said Ms. Cook, who was wary of "putting the burden" on less affluent students to achieve goals of socio-economic and racial diversity.
"This burden is being shared by everyone in the process," Mr. Hanna rejoined.
Ms. Johnston feared that Swansfield students would not have the same opportunities to take part in after-school, extra-curricular activities because they would have to catch buses to go home.
"We're busing students who could walk and disrupting the feeder school system," she said.
The school board also voted to give St. John's Lane Elementary School three more portable classrooms for a total of five next school year. At last week's work session on redistricting, Mr. Hanna had suggested moving three kindergarten classes to Burleigh Manor Middle School, which is about 200 students -- or 40 percent -- under-enrolled.
"Forty percent under-enrollment is just unfathomable to some of the people facing the onslaught," said Mr. Hanna.
"We must take a good, hard look at that building" before the end of the year, he said.