Battle over school lines


When 28 members of Howard County's school community convened in March to tackle the tangled mess of high school redistricting, there were whispers that there'd be trouble. The whisperers have proved to be right.

In the beginning, squabbling within the Boundary Lines Advisory Committee caused the trouble. Now, as the committee's work approaches its end, the trouble is coming from the very people the committee was meant to represent: Howard parents.

The committee has produced three maps showing various ways 3,000 to 4,000 high school students could be moved around next year, and many in the community are angry about what they show.

As a result, some committee members have been threatened with the loss of friendships. One member who resigned from the committee is rumored to have stepped down because of external pressure from parents at a school where he works.

Others say they have been greeted after late-night meetings by bullying mobs of moms demanding that their children be left alone.

Many say they have been bombarded with angry letters, e-mail and phone calls at home, in seemingly purposeful campaigns to disrupt family lives, harass and intimidate.

The committee as a whole, as well as at least one individual member, have been threatened with lawsuits.

"It's a very sad commentary on the whole thing, the whole process," said Margaret Hunt, a committee member representing Oakland Mills High School. "We all know [redistricting] can be a gut-wrenching thing, but I think that, as adults, we shouldn't behave that way."

The latest act of intimidation -- an e-mail sent recently to River Hill representative Debbie Bloome threatening to sue -- has the committee wondering about its liability and whether anyone would want to serve in a similar advisory capacity again.

"The first thing I thought of [when she opened the e-mail] was, How far are they going to take this? Am I covered? And what have I gotten myself into?" Bloome said.

The thought of a potential lawsuit made members so anxious that committee co-Chairman Mary Kay Sigaty asked for the advice of Mark Blom, the school district's attorney.

In a letter to the committee Tuesday, Blom advised members that they could, in fact, be sued, but that the lawsuit -- if it happened -- probably would not go anywhere.

"All it takes to sue somebody is the creative imagination and $70 to go down to the courthouse and file a suit," Blom said yesterday. "The real question is: Can they win? Is there a real basis? The answer to that is no. There's no legal basis to hold these people liable."

Furthermore, Blom said, the school board would defend them and pay all of their expenses, if it ever came to that.

"If it comes to that foolishness, you'd never get another volunteer committee," Hunt said. "Who would ever subject themselves to that?"

Most say they've been subjected to enough.

Oakland Mills High School representative Heather Tepe, who is also the east Columbia community correspondent for The Sun, said she has received many "nasty" phone calls from people whose neighborhoods have been suggested for redistricting to the Columbia school.

"It makes us really leery about going out in public," Tepe said.

Tepe said she finds herself wondering, "Is someone going to corner you again today in the Giant in the dairy section? I'm tired of being chased."

Atholton High School representative Joan Lancos said, for her, the bullying has been going on all along. "The stuff with me has not been direct threats, but continuous streams of e-mails," often riddled with name-calling and ugly comments, she said.

At meetings last month, when the three proposed redistricting plans were unveiled, Lancos placed her nametag in her pocket so angry parents wouldn't know who she was. "I just felt it would prevent people from accosting me in a negative way," she said.

For most of the committee members, the haranguing is surprising. Many have worked on other county committees and assumed that Howard residents -- educated people obviously concerned about children -- would be more mature.

"I've served in many different capacities on different committees," Bloome said. "It's never been this intimidating, trying to manipulate their way around situations.

"It seems like sometimes the more money they make," she added, "the sillier they act."

Third hearing on boundaries set Dec. 17

The Howard County Board of Education has added a third hearing date for community members interested in speaking about proposed changes to high school boundary lines.

In addition to redistricting hearings scheduled for Dec. 13 and Jan. 15, the school board will hold a hearing Dec. 17, beginning at 2 p.m. It will continue - save an hourlong dinner break at 6 p.m. - until all speakers who have signed up have been heard. Sign-up to speak at the hearing will begin at 8 a.m. Nov. 26. To sign up: 410-313-7197. E-mail sign-up will not be permitted.

The board will use the lottery system previously announced by Superintendent John R. O'Rourke to pick speakers for the other hearings.

"The feedback we received indicated people understood that our intention was to be fair, but they still felt the lottery process might be too restrictive," board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt said. "This third hearing should address that concern."

The two December meetings will be held at the Department of Education headquarters in Ellicott City. The Jan. 15 hearing will be held at Howard High School.

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