The 'R' word County seems unable to build its way out of school problem; redistricting looms.


SCHOOL REDISTRICTING is typically one of the most unsettling functions of local government. Howard County, through its school board and with the general public looking on in apprehension, is about to embark on a round of boundary revisions that promises to be everything past redistrictings have been -- and then some.

With the opening of two new high schools and an elementary school next fall, many of the county's schools -- top to bottom -- are likely to be affected.

In the past, race and socio-economics seemed to play a part in community opposition to redistricting. That's not right.

Still, school officials shouldn't lose sight of the fact that residents are duly concerned about changes that alter their sense of neighborhood. Particularly in "edge city" suburbs with relatively short histories, few institutions create a feeling of community as much as schools can.

Driving this upheaval, of course, is the growth in the school-age population. It is expected to grow to 48,000 -- an increase of 10,500 pupils -- over the next decade. Even under budget constraints, the school system plans to build 14 new schools during that period to help cope with the growth, but that added capacity won't accommodate all of it.

The opening of two new high schools at River Hill and Long Reach require that students be transferred to attend those schools. All of the county's high schools except two -- Hammond and Oakland Mills -- are on the list for some redistricting. That may seem like major upheaval, but it could have been worse had school officials not recently increased the allowable capacity at the high school level.

If the school system was to implement year-round schooling, redistricting could be employed less because more students would attend the same school in the course of a year. But that would solve one problem only to create others.

The last option -- to continue to build as many schools as growth would dictate -- seems to be a strategy in remission. As in some other fast-growth suburbs in Maryland, Howard officials appear ever more in doubt of the county's ability to build its way out of the problem of school crowding.

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