Council hears of woes at older schools; Parents say children don't have resources that newer sites do; 'All legitimate concerns'; Disparities in books, technology, teachers' experience are noted


A crowd of 250 people listened last night to a litany of complaints about physical plant and educational problems in Howard County's older schools at a meeting called by three County Council members and attended by County Executive James N. Robey.

From 30-year-old playground equipment at Running Brook Elementary to lack of Internet access, 10 invited speakers asked the county's political leaders for relief they said they have not been able to get from the school board.

County Council Democrats C. Vernon Gray, Guy J. Guzzone and Mary C. Lorsung -- who represent Columbia -- organized the meeting to address the concerns of parents who have children in older schools, mainly in Columbia, and who feel their children are not getting equal treatment.

"At Guilford Elementary, it feels like the parents and teachers and community churches are doing more to further the education of our future leaders than the school board," said Kari Ebeling, the school's PTA president.

"We fund raise to death just to keep things even" with schools in wealthier areas, Ebeling said.

The speakers, including two students, implored the school board and council members to recognize disparities in technology, playground equipment, textbooks, experience levels of teachers and other resources that exist between older and newer schools.

Education officials have said that all schools are updated on an unbiased schedule that is based on which schools were last improved.

But some speakers said the school board should pay special attention to the county's older schools.

"The school system really needs to make sure that the older schools are kept up, and that they're given extra money to be brought up to the same level of quality," said Donna Thewes, whose children attend Murray Hill Middle School in Laurel and Atholton Elementary School in Columbia.

The council's interest in school equity issues was piqued last month when parents in the Clemens Crossing community in Columbia transferred their children to the new Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton instead of having them attend Wilde Lake Middle, which they said was inferior.

The transfers sparked debate in the community and spotlighted a trend toward declining white enrollment and increased concentrations of minority and lower-income students in several schools in older Columbia neighborhoods.

Over the past decade, eight older elementary schools in Columbia have experienced a sharp decline in white enrollment while black enrollment grew. Nearly half the county's African-American children are concentrated in those schools.

As the meeting began, Gray stressed that he suggested such a public forum before the Wilde Lake-Lime Kiln incident occurred.

"This is not about the decision of some parents to move their students from one school to another," Gray said. "Those parents are just doing what they think is best for their children's education."

Many of last night's speakers represented schools designated by the school district as "focus schools," a label which entitles them to more resources because they have lower test scores and higher concentrations of students getting free and reduced-price lunches. Most said they felt the designation was not benefiting the students, and that instead of gaining them more attention, it was getting them less.

County school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and Stephen Bounds, school board vice chairman, attended the meeting but did not participate.

Robey said he has asked his staff to investigate whether housing policies could be contributing to racial imbalances in the schools.

After the meeting, Hickey said the speakers' comments -- including those of the council members -- weren't anything he hadn't heard before. He said many people seem uninformed about the steps educators are taking to address school inequities.

"These are all legitimate concerns except those that seem to imply indifference on the part of the Board of Education," Hickey said. "There's a lot of lack of information, and if the County Council wants to be involved in the problem-solving in a broader way, then they need to understand the budget more and they need to understand some of the things that we're dealing with here."

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