Two 4-year-old cousins, who live a few houses apart in Sykesville, will start kindergarten at different elementary schools this fall if a contentious Carroll County redistricting plan takes effect.
Playmates from infancy, Hannah Rees and Tess Lawrence are fretting about the prospect of attending separate schools in September, said Cathy Rees, Hannah's mother and Tess' aunt. Hannah is one of 54 children in Sykesville who would be sent to Linton Springs Elementary in Eldersburg. Her cousin, who like Hannah lives on Kalorama Road, would be with the rest of the town children at Piney Ridge Elementary School on Freedom Avenue, about a mile outside the town limits.
The redistricting plan, on which the school board will vote next month, would move 4,000 children from crowded schools into classrooms in less populated areas. The proposal is affecting communities across the county, including Sykesville, which, for the first time in municipal memory, would have to divide its children between two elementary schools.
Over the course of a couple of days last week, Rees pulled the two children in a little red wagon through Sykesville neighborhoods, collecting signatures for a petition against the redistricting plan. About 325 households signed -- more than triple the number of homes affected by the proposal.
"At every house, Hannah and Tess would ask, 'Is that mommy going to help us stay in school together?' " said Rees. "Why are we making our children suffer?"
Residents, along with the mayor and Town Council, are pleading: Don't divide our town. School officials said they have heard the complaints and are working to redraw the lines.
"We don't feel comfortable with redistricting in this area," said Kathleen Sanner, director of school support services. "But because of our charge to balance enrollments, it was the only place we could go."
Three of the five elementary schools in South Carroll, the county's most populated area, are crowded and surrounded by portable classrooms. Piney Ridge, with 627 pupils -- most of whom live in town -- is more than 50 children over capacity. Redistricting would shift pupils to Linton Springs, which has a smaller enrollment.
"You can't just balance enrollment," said Rees, a mother of three. "You have to see if [redistricting] makes sense in the first place."
Rees and her neighbors, who live at the west end of Sykesville, cannot justify separating children from their friends in this close-knit community of 3,500 residents.
"To take three streets out of an established community makes no sense," said Mary Buzzeo of Brandenburg Circle. "These children have bonded through school and extracurricular activities like Scouts and rec teams."
In drawing new school lines, the redistricting committee did not follow its criteria: to establish new boundaries along major roads and leave existing communities intact, said Councilman Michael H. Burgoyne. When it eliminated 100 households from the Piney Ridge School district, the committee chose a 2-mile hiking trail as a dividing line.
"The criteria was not to divide an existing community," said Burgoyne. "Despite that, they drew a line through Sykesville. Redistricting our town would be harmful. No other town in Carroll has been split, except for Westminster, which is too large for one school district."
Burgoyne said an established, unified community is what has attracted so many families to Sykesville, a town that sits along the Patapsco River at the border of Carroll and Howard counties.
Redistricting a small neighborhood within the town "would be damaging to the town as a whole and devastating to the neighborhood," Councilwoman Debby Ellis said.
"All of our design efforts were intended to bring the residents and their children closer together, encourage interaction and integrate neighborhoods into the greater town community," said Ellis, also a member of the town planning commission.
The debate has little to do with where a school is and everything to do with what Sykesville means to its residents, they said.
The location of the town's elementary school has changed often as its population grew. The school has not been within municipal boundaries for many years, but it has always been where every Sykesville child attends class.
From 1891 until the building was demolished in 1936, children attended a two-story brick schoolhouse on Springfield Avenue near Cooper Park.
"We all went together for 11 grades," said Dorothy Schafer, a lifelong town resident who attended the original school. "We went to the same four churches, and our parents all knew each other. We could walk to each other's houses. Today, kids Rollerblade to each other's houses, but the point is they are within reach of each other."
Schafer taught music and English at Sykesville High School, also on Springfield Avenue. A fire destroyed that building in 1957. Classrooms were in various buildings throughout town until the school was rebuilt. It is now the middle school, which all town children attend for grades six through eight.
"I don't understand the rationale for this redistricting," said Schafer. "This is a community. We are more and more trying to stay a community. We enjoy our neighborhoods."
Debbie Scheller, whose children would be redistricted to Linton Springs, said she understands that crowding in South Carroll's elementary schools has created a logistical challenge. But she asked why children who live a few houses apart would go to different schools and be on different class schedules.
From her home near the edge of town, she can see new construction outside the municipality's borders. Within two years, that development will add another 100 homes to the Linton Springs district.
"What will they do then?" Scheller asked. "Will they flip-flop our children back to Piney Ridge? This can't be good emotionally or academically."
"We do a lot as a community," said Scheller. "This redistricting would segregate three streets and make us a suburb of our own town. It would tear us away from our community."