School boundaries face an appeal Parents group says plan segregates


A group of parents upset with Tuesday's decision on new school boundary lines plans to appeal to the state school board and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Critics say the board's 3-1 decision will shift more low-income and minority students to Wilde Lake High School, effectively segregating students by race and family income. Among county high schools, Wilde Lake currently has the highest percentage of minorities (more than 45 percent) and also of students on free and reduced meals (more than 5 percent).

Parent Richard Schreibstein called the county school board's decision "gutless. The whole thing was just incredible," he said. "What the school board has just done was wrong."

The new lines affect students in the Longfellow, Beaverbrook and Hobbit's Glen communities, who will attend Wilde Lake High School beginning in the fall of 1994. Students in the Dorsey Hall community will attend the new western high school starting in 1996.

Mr. Schreibstein, who lives in the Beaverbrook community, said he will file a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department asking it to determine whether the school board's decision violated federal civil rights law.

Nathaniel Douglas, a lawyer for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said he could not comment on the grievance procedure or the department's enforcement powers until he reviews the complaint.

"We don't know the nature of the subject matter," he said. "Until we know what the problem is, we cannot comment."

The state school board requires that written appeals to a school board decision be filed within 30 days of the vote.

School board Chairman Dana Hanna disputed the suggestion that the board had violated civil rights. While conceding that an alternate plan would "enhance the composition of Wilde Lake to better reflect the community at large," Mr. Hanna said "it seems to be a stretch to think [the board's plan] would be a violation."

He said the new lines will decrease the percentage of minorities at Wilde Lake, even though an alternate plan would have gone further.

Minority student population would decrease by 5 percent to 40 percent in 1996 under the approved redistricting plan, but would decrease by about 15 percent to 31 percent under an alternate plan, according to school figures.

For hours at Tuesday's meeting, the board debated an alternate plan that would have bused high school students living in the Swansfield Elementary School district to the new western high school to create a socio-economically and racially mixed student population there. About 13 percent of Swansfield students are from low-income families and most are within walking distance of Wilde Lake.

Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said his staff had difficulty choosing which plan to recommend to the board, calling it a "toss up."

"We almost put the recommendation and [the alternate proposal] as two recommendations," he said. "I think it was a very difficult decision [for the board] to make."

Board member Sandra French, who favored busing Swansfield students, was disappointed in the outcome. "That was our chance to fulfill the vision of having a student population in which all members of Howard County were represented, a microcosm," she said.

Ms. French said she comes from a blue-collar, mostly white community and missed out on meeting and knowing people of different races and cultures. "I just wish I had been more convincing," she said.

Mr. Hanna had supported busing Swansfield students to the new school for most of the redistricting hearing. But he became the swing vote for sending Dorsey Hall students to the new high school instead. He said he changed his mind when it became apparent that no other board member would.

"I felt the other three board members were fairly set and unchangeable in their decisions," he said.

Mr. Hanna viewed sending Dorsey Hall to the new western high school as a "better plan" and busing Swansfield students to that school as the "best plan."

Dorsey Hall parents say they're still hoping an addition will be built at Centennial, but they are satisfied with the decision.

"I think they had a tough decision to make, and I think the school board made a decision that was best for the county, both in short-term and long-term," said Bob Kaufman, a parent on the Dorsey Hall Redistricting Committee.

Mr. Kaufman felt that his community, mostly white, had been "unfairly attacked" for wanting to stay at Centennial, where test scores are highest in the county, rather than switching to Wilde Lake, which has the lowest scores and highest minority student population.

"We strongly support the broad goals and objectives of Columbia," he said, referring to the aim of racial diversity. "It's unfortunate that some people, especially in the press, have been accusing the Dorsey Hall community of untrue facts."

Board members Susan Cook and Linda Johnston opposed busing Swansfield students because they were afraid students would miss out on after-school, extra-curricular activities if they had to catch buses to go home. Ms. Cook also said she didn't want to put the burden of achieving socio-economic and racial goals on Swansfield students.

Many parents were upset at the school board's decision. The head of the Longfellow-Beaverbrook-Hobbit's Glen redistricting committee criticized school board members for harping on the inconvenience of busing when no one from Swansfield had testified for or against the idea.

"The bottom line is, no one in that community has come through . . . to state they did not want to leave Wilde Lake High School," said Marianne Hollerbach, also president of Longfellow Elementary School's PTA.

Barbara Strong Goss, an Ellicott City parent who has spoken out in favor of creating equal and diverse schools, was disheartened by the decision.

"Unfortunately, the board's final vote ensures that the socio-economic and racial diversity issue is not going to go away, and because the measure adopted is full of tentative assignments, it ensures that the public debate will continue," she said.

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