Facing growing complaints about older schools in Columbia, Howard County's top educational and governmental leaders launched an unusual initiative yesterday to fix problems in a school system often called Maryland's best.
The move caps several weeks of debate over what many residents see as serious inequities in education in the county, with newer schools often perceived as better. The long-simmering issue moved to the forefront last month when The Sun reported that Columbia parents dissatisfied with Wilde Lake Middle School were paying $38,000 to bus dozens of children to new Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton this year.
A newly created 23-member Leadership Committee on School Equity will make recommendations -- and end recent bickering among school and governmental leaders about what to do and who is responsible. School officials, recently on the defensive as County Council members and the county executive began inquiries, acknowledged yesterday that real problems requiring a joint effort do exist.
School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said that "polarization is developing between older schools and newer ones, between Columbia and non-Columbia interests, between high-performing schools and those performing less well, between high-socioeconomic neighborhoods and lower ones."
Although some said they believe the government should stay out of the elected school board's business, County Executive James N. Robey, Hickey, and County Council and school board members said they want to join hands.
"This is an important symbol that we are one community," said County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat. "These issues are our issues -- not the school system's issues, or the county government's issues. This is our county, our kids and ours and their future."
Several Columbia schools, once the envy of other Howard communities, are lagging academically, as are a few in North Laurel and Elkridge. Newer schools are attracting newcomers to the county and some Columbia families are unhappy with the schools in their communities.
School system figures show a sharp drop in white enrollment in eight older Columbia elementary schools over the past decade, as the number of African-American students has grown. This change -- in sharp contrast to increasing white enrollment outside Columbia -- has concentrated nearly half the county's black students in the eight schools, which also have higher numbers of children from lower-income families and those who do not speak English well.
The drift toward racial and economic segregation and academic problems in some older schools has been recognized only recently. Education leaders have said they are not responsible for housing patterns that shape enrollment in neighborhood schools, but some parents and political leaders complain that older schools are not getting the resources they need.
"I've watched this matter grow over the last few months and feel that now is the time to take action," said Robey, a Democrat. The former police chief said he "wrestled" over the weekend with what his role should be after encountering criticism for not leading the council's efforts. He met with Hickey early Monday, and started recruiting committee members.
The leadership committee announced at a news conference in Ellicott City yesterday is meant to fuse with the effort under way by the County Council, and report its findings by March 1. Committee co-chairs are Mary Ellen Duncan, president of Howard Community College, and William Benton, a private consultant who advised Robey on educational issues during his election campaign last year.
No splits were apparent in the united front county and school officials presented yesterday, and even a council Republican endorsed the effort.
Western Howard County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman enthusiastically endorsed the committee, saying, "We are together now. It's not about politics, it's our children." But a fellow Republican, state Sen. Martin G. Madden, voiced dissent.
"It looks like we have the beginnings of a 25-member school board," said the Senate minority leader, who did not attend the news conference. He warned of the "danger" of politicians mixing in nonpartisan school affairs when Howard County already "has the best school system in the state."
But County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who helped start the council's effort with a public meeting on school inequities Oct. 18, said the overall excellence can be deceiving. "There are problems masked by high average scores and new, well-equipped newer schools," he said at the news conference.
Most of the committee members have been chosen, Robey said, and will include people from government, business, parent-teacher groups and the county's branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Joe Staub, president of the Howard County Education Association, said he is happy about the committee's formation but thinks teachers should be represented, too. "We have a legitimate place in that discussion," he said.