Public has its say about school equity; Second of 3 meetings focuses on redistricting and open enrollment; 'Validity and importance'; Council members told fair division of funds needs clear definition


More details of the problems existing in many of the schools in Columbia emerged last night at the second of three school equity meetings sponsored by the Howard County Council.

Parents and community members from three committees created by the council shared reports with the council. The panels have been working on their reports since the first meeting Oct. 18.

The meetings seek to determine why there is a public perception of inequities between older and newer county schools.

The committees -- representing east Columbia, west Columbia and focus schools -- were asked last month to talk with parents in their communities and write a report that addresses several topics, including redistricting, open enrollment and equity among schools.

Opinions were mixed on the subjects of open enrollment and redistricting.

Kari Ebeling, PTA president at Guilford Elementary School, said "there is validity and importance" to the discussion of redistricting.

Others said redistricting and open enrollment, as the district practices them, tend to be inefficient and cause confusion.

"Talbott Springs has had boundary line adjustments with the creation of two islands," said Margaret Hunt, who represented east Columbia.

"One is in the neighborhood of Hopewell, which uses three buses to send students to Talbott Springs, and the other is Columbia Road, which sends a half-filled bus to Talbott Springs," Hunt said. "The majority of families in these islands choose to open enroll their children at other elementary schools. Redistricting is an issue for east Columbia schools that is not going away."

Some committee members reported that many parents are against redistricting if it means their child will have to attend a school with lower test scores. Others are for it when they consider its impact on the entire student population.

But almost all speakers last night suggested that the issue of equity in resources among schools needs to be more clearly defined and, possibly broadened, to include effective use of resources.

"Is it equitable if each school is given the same amount of money? Of course not," said Barry Budish, PTA president of Waterloo Elementary in east Columbia.

"Is it equitable if each school is funded proportionately based on the same per pupil amount? That sounds better," Budish said. "But we need to step back, as we are doing now, and look at equity from the point of view of our children. Are the same quality teachers and administrators at every school? How would we know? Can this even be measured?"

During the meeting, which lasted about three hours, parents lamented problems in particular schools. Too many pupils at Laurel Woods Elementary are unruly, one parent said. Administrators at Long Reach High School in Columbia have lower standards for some students, said another.

Others said problems are not limited to Columbia and focus schools -- those that receive extra resources because oflower academic performance. Ken Jennings, vice president of operations of the African American Coalition of Howard County, said some pupils in one grade at Ilchester Elementary School have no math books, while students in another grade do.

"It appears that there is inequity within the schools as well as between the schools," Jennings said.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an East Columbia Democrat, said the council wanted to hear from all segments of the school district.

"This is not an effort to divide, or as the [school] superintendent implied, polarize anybody," Gray said. "It's an effort to bring people together."

The committees will write one report and present it to the County Council at the third meeting Nov. 29, Gray said. The council will present report to the school board at a meeting Dec. 6.

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