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Parents file appeal, challenge school redistricting Group contends decision is 'illegal'


The Howard County Board of Education's recent high schoo redistricting decision was "arbitrary, unreasonable and illegal," according to an appeal to the state school board by a group of parents.

The decision to redistrict Longfellow, Beaverbrook, Hobbit's Glen and Beech Creek neighborhoods from Centennial to Wilde Lake would leave Centennial with virtually no black students and Wilde Lake with "substantially all of the non-English speaking population . . . thereby increasing the burden on that school's staff and resources," according to the appeal.

School board Chairman Dana Hanna said the appeal is 'f groundless.

"I am confident that our board used a very public and inclusive process to arrive at a valid decision and, therefore, feel very strongly that there is no merit in the appeal," he said. "I was sorry that someone was going to be putting forth the energies to pursue what I think is an effort that will be for naught."

The county has until May 17 to file a response, after which a judge in the state Office of Administrative Hearings in Baltimore has 45 days to review the case and render an initial decision. The state Board of Education schedules a hearing on that decision at which both parties may testify. The state board's decision is final.

The appeals process takes four to six months, said Assistant Attorney General Valerie V. Cloutier, lawyer for the state Department of Education.

"The decision of the local board has a presumption of correctness, and it can't be reversed unless it's arbitrary, unreasonable or illegal," she said.

"Almost every redistricting that occurs is appealed, because it usually changes the enrollment in schools, and it always impacts some families," she said. "Some people are satisfied, and some are not."

Richard Schreibstein, a Columbia parent who filed the appeal April 21, called the redistricting decision "contrary to sound educational policies."

He contends that it does not address the primary issue -- crowding -- because no students will be moved until the 1994 school year. After the move, he said, Centennial still would have 200 students too many and Wilde Lake would be underenrolled by about 50.

The school system plans to add two more mobile classrooms next year to Centennial to accommodate the extra students, school officials said.

What Mr. Schreibstein and some 240 parents who signed the appeal want is a new decision that would increase the number of minority, particularly black, students at Centennial. They say the board's decision would leave Centennial as well as the new western high school -- where children from the Dorsey Hall neighborhood will go in 1996 -- virtually without minority students.

Under the board's decision, Centennial in 1997 would have 168 minority students, 27 of them black, according to school figures. Wilde Lake would have close to 450 minority students, including 332 black students. Parents say the decision violates a state law requiring that school environments reflect the ethnic diversity of the community.

Mr. Hanna said the school board took more than racial diversity into consideration when it made its decision. "They're taking one factor in a 10-factor redistricting policy and making it pre-eminent," Mr. Hanna said. "And that is where they, in my estimation, go astray."

Parents also contend the board invalidated the redistricting process and abused its discretion by not waiting for board member Deborah Kendig's return before casting votes. Ms. Kendig had been absent for several weeks and missed the redistricting process because she was recuperating from an illness.

"We're not talking about missing one meeting. . . . We're talking about missing the entire process," Mr. Hanna said. "Had the decision waited for Ms. Kendig, the argument would have been Ms. Kendig should not have participated in the final decision because she was not involved in the entire process."

The process involved two public work sessions and two public hearings at which parents, teachers and students addressed the board through written testimony as well as speeches. Mr. Schreibstein says Ms. Kendig could have read the testimony after she returned and could have voted, especially because the board had approved delaying redistricting for a year.

Mr. Hanna said it would have been wrong for Ms. Kendig to take part.

"They say it because they feel her vote would have changed the decision in a different direction," Mr. Hanna said. "That may or may not be true, and it sidesteps the fundamental issue of the propriety of participating in a final decision having not been in the entire process."

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