The decision by school administrators to delay countywide redistricting is drawing fire from top elected officials, who say it's costly and doesn't help older Columbia schools repair image problems.
County Executive James N. Robey said he was "surprised" by the decision, revealed late Thursday at a school board meeting. He had been expecting countywide redistricting, which would redraw school boundary lines and require many students to be bused out of their commmunities -- some to underused Columbia schools, a controversial idea.
School officials led by Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said countywide redistricting isn't feasible or necessary now in light of plans to reduce class sizes and alternatives such as portable classrooms and additions. Their decision, however, requires approval by the school board, which could feel political pressure.
Some County Council members are upset about what they feel is the lack of plans for improving older schools.
Several older Columbia schools are viewed as less desirable by many parents, who are moving elsewhere or getting permission to send their children to other schools. That, in turn, is shrinking enrollments in the older schools and contributing to a growing racial and economic imbalance, with African-African, Hispanic and less affluent students becoming concentrated in them.
With many parents opposed to their children attending these schools, a battle over redistricting loomed. School officials seem to have averted that. They say that previously approved plans for reducing first- and second-grade classes from 25 to 19 pupils would require space in the older schools not used now for classrooms, so that space could not be used for redistricting.
Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray questioned the motives of school officials, suggesting they are using class reductions to duck a fight.
"It's a way they can avoid making difficult decisions about redistricting," said the east Columbia Democrat.
"We're going to get parents from the Columbia schools together and make a plan. The school system has refused to address this. If they want a new school someplace, I want an aggressive program to improve Columbia schools," he said.
Gray and other county officials are concerned about preserving older neighborhoods, which require attractive schools to remain vital.
While the decision not to do broad redistricting might ease some parents' concerns, it requires additional spending to ease crowding, which is acute in the Ellicott City area.
School officials proposed to the school board Thursday building an elementary school in that fast-growing area and enlarging nine elementary schools: Forest Ridge, Pointers Run, Hollifield Station, Clarksville, Gorman Crossing, Fulton, Lisbon, Bushy Park and Waverly.
Construction would be spread over several years, with additions to Forest Ridge and Pointers Run completed in August 2001. The new elementary would be occupied in August 2003.
The largest expense in the $51 million capital budget submitted for next year by Hickey is $21 million for a new high school.
"It blows me out of the water," said Robey, referring to the capital budget. "I want to see the numbers, and I want the numbers verified."
Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a Laurel-Savage Democrat, agreed with Gray about the need to address the problems of older schools.
"We are going to take this issue to the street and talk to those schools that are affected. We need to get people excited," he said. "This is absolutely the highest priority in my mind."
Fellow Democrat Mary C. Lorsung, who represents west Columbia, also wants more help for older schools.
But school officials say they are doing what has been asked of them -- by the elected county officials.
"He's reacting in a political fashion, but one that's not fully informed," Hickey said about Gray's comments.
Noting that Gray, Robey and the entire County Council supported the class-size reduction plan, Hickey said the criticism was "a convenient change in perspective."
Although the school board has yet to vote on the plans, Vice Chairman Stephen C. Bounds defended them.
"The need or the ability to do a comprehensive Columbia plan was based upon substantial space availability," Bounds said. "That's no longer the case."
Bounds also said redistricting to close socioeconomic gaps among the county's schools is inappropriate.
"If someone is suggesting that we redistrict to achieve some racial or socioeconomic balance of some sort, I believe that's against the law," Bounds said.
Five additions suggested
Associate Superintendent Maurice Kalin said the numbers speak for themselves. Reducing first- and second-grade class sizes to boost reading countywide will take up 2,256 classroom seats next school year.
In the crowded northeast school district, the change will create a need for 486 more elementary seats -- enough to require a new school.
Kalin said building cheaper additions in that area won't work, because three schools -- Deep Run, Elkridge and Ilchester -- have enrollments of 600 pupils, while Rockburn has too little land and Waterloo is too old.
But Kalin recommended building additions to five schools in western Howard -- Bushy Park, Clarksville, Fulton, Lisbon and Pointers Run -- because those buildings are newer and their enrollments lower.
"My job is to look at the need for capacity and design a budget that meets the need," Kalin said.
In Columbia, the class reduction plan will use up all available space until 2002-2003, when, Kalin said, a general redistricting will again be on the table. In 2003, he said, elementary enrollments should begin to drop.
Until the new northeast elementary is built, Kalin said, the extra pupils can be accommodated in portable classrooms, by small-scale redistricting and by moving kindergarten children from Ilchester to Piney Branch Middle school next door.
Relocatable classrooms cost $1,920 a seat, while additions cost $9,000 a seat and new schools cost double that. Kalin says his plan is efficient, using the cheapest available alternative.
Hickey sees no alternative.
"We'd like to do something in a comprehensive fashion," Hickey said, "but we don't have the space."
Racial balance in schools, he added, "is not our problem. That's the county's problem. The county makes decisions about housing."
Guzzone noted, however, that "[school board members] draw the lines" that determine which children attend which school.
Lorsung said county officials shouldn't bicker over tough decisions, or deny a shared responsibility.
"It's us," she said. "Is the school system not us?"