Schools saga nears an end


With less than a week to redraw high school boundaries, the Howard County Board of Education is considering another plan and several last-minute suggestions - a move that has some satisfied that board members are finally listening and others claiming that it proves they haven't heard a word.

The long discussion of the community-based comprehensive plan at Thursday's public work session on redistricting stirred board members to tack on a fifth work session Tuesday, giving them more time to consider the myriad recommendations they've received.

In addition to weighing this latest proposal, board members are considering the red plan - one of three created by the citizen-led Boundary Lines Advisory Committee - and a modification of that plan recommended by Superintendent John R. O'Rourke.

The comprehensive plan melds the red plan and the gray plan, which was offered to the school board by members of the Fulton/Lime Kiln communities. The comprehensive plan was penned by River Hill parent Kendall Echols, who has been looking for ways to keep his Pointers Run neighborhood together at River Hill High School since the process began months ago.

Under Echols' plan, that goal is accomplished. It also satisfies those in the Fulton area, who suggested in the gray plan that 800 North Laurel students slated for the new Reservoir High School remain at Atholton High School instead - to free up space at the new high school for more children at Lime Kiln Middle School, with which it shares a campus.

In some ways the comprehensive plan looks like the gray plan except that it takes only a small section of North Laurel into Reservoir. By moving only about 175 of the 800 North Laurel students, all Lime Kiln Middle pupils would be able to attend Reservoir.

Echols said his plan represents a compromise of the best of the red and gray plans. For example, many residents had complained that North Laurel's children were being kept out of the school closest to them by the gray plan. Echols' plan sends to Reservoir students from the westernmost portion of North Laurel - the part that is closest to the new school.

"If the county selects the red plan or the gray plan, large sections of students are going to be negatively impacted, which is a lose-lose for the county," he said.

At the same time, Echols' proposal also indirectly cools the ire of parents in Mount Hebron High School's sending district, who have been furious about a key point in O'Rourke's recommendation: the redistricting of several western Mount Hebron neighborhoods into Centennial High School. Echols' plan would keep those students in Mount Hebron by following a portion of the red plan.

Fulton parent Steve Lagana, a creator of the gray plan, said the board's serious consideration of the comprehensive plan proves that members are finally hearing the community's complaints.

"I guess it became apparent that they had to discuss the issues or the community would not settle down," he said.

Board Chairwoman Jane B. Schuchardt said the board was waiting for school system staff members to compare statistics for all plans before it jumped into discussion of the latest proposal. That data came to the board at Thursday's work session, showing the comprehensive plan to be a real contender, she said.

It needs to be examined further, Schuchardt added, as do the other two plans the board is considering.

"It's one that has some viable ideas," Schuchardt said. "But we're still working. One of the plans may be good in one thing, one may be good in the other thing. We are listening to everything that we're hearing. We've made a lot of changes. The ones that'll still tell us that we're not listening are those that aren't getting what they want."

But there are many in the community who say privately that the board is listening only to the vocal wealthy.

Colleen Reardon, a Mount Hebron mother who has been fighting for the board to leave rising sophomores in their home schools, unless they would be attending Reservoir, said board comments at the last work session prove, at the very least, the members have not been listening to her.

Despite Reardon's countless e-mails, signed petitions and her arranging for at least one speaker at every public hearing, board members appeared to misunderstand her argument, debating Thursday whether to redistrict any sophomores.

Reardon left the work session dumbfounded.

"The community has always recognized that rising sophomores must populate the new high school, Reservoir. We have also recognized that depending on the plan that was being reviewed, rising sophomores of the high schools surrounding Reservoir may have to [be redistricted]," Reardon wrote in an e-mail to the board Friday. "However, for the schools that have nothing to do with Reservoir, rising sophomores can and should stay."

Others say board members aren't listening to the people they've entrusted for months to give them the most useful and reliable information - the boundary lines committee and the district's coordinator of geographic systems, David C. Drown.

"They want to send more students from Lime Kiln to Reservoir, and it is an admirable goal," said Mary Catherine Cochran, a former member of the lines committee. "But it has repercussions. These are ideas that have already been looked at and have been deemed not feasible to do, and they've been deemed that for specific reasons, and [board members] need to think about why."

Cochran said board members are dealing with too much information in too little time - and they're leaning too little on those well-versed enough to help them.

"You need to be starting from a huge well of information and narrowing it to a bucketful ... so that people can understand the concepts," she said. "And instead we're still dealing with a huge well, and there's no way that the board can process all that information in the one week they have before it's time to vote."

Parent activist Courtney Watson said it seems that board members may be so overwhelmed that they aren't even remembering what they have said - that this redistricting should be part of a "forward-thinking plan" to relieve crowding in the county's northeast and efficiently fill a 12th high school set to open in 2005.

Instead, she indicated, board members have abandoned those strategic goals to tussle over suggestions that may save a group of children from isolation, prevent middle schools from being split too many ways, add temporary diversity to some schools or perfect feeder systems at others.

"We are looking for better long-term planning from the board in this round of redistricting," not future rounds, Watson said.

The work session has been scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at board headquarters in Ellicott City. The board has promised to set new boundaries for high schools Thursday.

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