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Panel applies lessons from '01 redistricting


Last year, redistricting in Howard County schools brought parents close to war.

Thousands of high school students were shuffled to fill the new Reservoir High in Fulton, and, at the same time, the county was introducing a new way of shifting boundary lines - heavy on committee input, community involvement and contention all around.

This year, elementary and middle school districts are being reshaped, and the numbers of children involved are much larger.

The remapping has a number of goals, including filling a new elementary and middle school, relieving crowding at some schools and bringing better balance to feeder systems used to funnel students to middle and high schools.

Already - even with barely-penciled-in preliminary proposals - some neighborhoods are unhappy. But the work of this year's reconfigured citizens' redistricting advisory panel appears to be going more smoothly, with better organization and better data.

"Last year, frankly, was a learning experience for everybody, myself included," said David C. Drown, the school district's coordinator of geographic systems, who heads the advisory committee. "Last year, we really didn't have a process. We made it up as we went along."

This year's process is better-defined, he said.

The committee - which has been pared from 28 members to 18 - is made up of representatives from six chunks of the county, not ones connected to each particular school. That has made a difference, Drown said.

"The way we did it before, it almost guaranteed that we were going to have a regional perspective and not a countywide perspective," he said.

Also, five returning members add continuity to the community-driven process, which was tested last year.

"There were some lessons learned in that last redistricting," said Ellen Giles, chairwoman of this year's committee and a veteran member. "I just thought it was important to be a continuation of that history."

Important data has been distributed to committee members earlier in the process, as well, she said - and it has been more accurate.

"Last year, we were really guessing on a lot of things," Giles said. "You felt a little bit less secure in the decisions that you were making."

That insecurity was evident and made parents equally uneasy, said Deborah Wessner, president of the county's PTA Council. When they had questions, committee members had no answers - or worse, their answers were wrong. That might have contributed to parents' combative moods during last year's boundary shifts, she said.

"I feel like the data is better now," Wessner said. "And the process is a little better melded."

Indeed, last year's committee members were missing crucial information such as accurate enrollment projections, data on feeder schools, housing facts and a countywide view of neighborhoods and communities.

This year's committee has been meeting every Tuesday night since June armed with reams of paperwork: who lives where, who is building what where, how many children are expected to enroll at which school and when.

Knowing what capital projects the school system has planned and dividing the county into 220 "planning polygons," based on neighborhoods, has also made a tremendous difference, members said.

"So when we talk about moving an area, we can easily look and say, 'Oh, that's 94 kids.' Or, 'Oh, it's only 80 kids,' " Giles said.

All the information has enabled committee members to come to meetings more prepared.

Instead of depending on Drown to come up with redrawn lines for criticism, "This year, I've had committee members submit completed plans for evaluation," he said.

Committee members and school officials hope parents also will be more prepared this year. Wessner said the PTA Council is starting to educate parents about the best way to approach concerns about the proposals, when they are finally presented to the public this month.

The first rule: Leave emotions at home. Never say, "Please don't move my child," without backing that statement up with facts.

"There's always a group of parents who are going to retain a good deal of concern about whether their concerns are going to be heard," Wessner said. "But then, there is a good portion of parents who know that - if you come to them with reasonable suggestions and good data, to talk about the particular concerns in your community about a plan - that you will be listened to."

All signs point to this year's parents being less cantankerous than last year's because of changes the committee made.

"At times [last year], it felt like a zoo," Giles said of the weekly redistricting meetings. "There were so many people. They were out in the hallways, peeking in the windows. It was a funny feeling. This year, they've been very polite."

So far, the committee has come up with two working proposals for elementary school boundaries and one for middle schools.

Because the county is opening Bellows Spring Elementary school near Waterloo Elementary in the northeast, and also opening Folly Quarter Middle School on a site in western Howard that some consider too small, officials suspect that if there are complaints, they might come from those areas.

"The northeast is the hottest spot," Giles said. "Parents are probably more involved at the elementary school level and so feel more invested."

But any neighborhood where children might be moved is a candidate for contention.

A group of Glenmont parents packed one advisory committee meeting in July fearful that 56 of their kids might be sent from top-rated Thunder Hill Elementary School to struggling Phelps Luck next fall. Other parents from North Laurel's Forest Ridge Elementary School are distressed that there has been talk about sending some of their children to Laurel Woods, a school that has been struggling with low test scores for years.

Drown stressed that the plans are preliminary: "These are drafts. They will change as we go along."

Now that school's back in session, committee members are eager for more input from parents - even on the drafts.

"I think the meetings will be very well-attended. I hope so anyway," Giles said. "I hope we get a lot of comments. It would be good if everybody took advantage of the opportunity to be a part of the process and not just comment at the end."

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