New school boundary plans leave few happy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The community finally got a gander at proposed changes in Howard elementary and middle school boundary lines last night, and what they saw left many parents frustrated and full of questions.

"I moved here four years ago when I was pregnant," said Susan Defibaugh, who lives in the Hopewell neighborhood in Owen Brown village, "and I thought my child would be going to Dasher Green. That's what the real estate agent said."

But after looking at the maps of suggested changes - including four elementary school possibilities and one middle school diagram - it appeared more likely her toddler will eventually go to Talbott Springs Elementary School, which Defibaugh thinks is the worst in the county system. If that happens, she said, she will look into private schools.

Of the more than 200 people who showed up at Hammond High School's auditorium for the information meeting, most were unhappy at night's end and concerned that moving their kids would subject them to lesser educations and later feed them into middle and high schools where they don't know anyone. Community cohesion was also a big worry.

During last year's high school redistricting, hundreds of parents gathered to voice similar concerns.

"A general rule of thumb is that if you have to move, you're going to be unhappy," said David Drown, the school district's coordinator of geographic systems. "People feel their community is defined by their elementary school boundaries, but moving them is a necessary evil."

Every year, the county's school-age population goes up by about 1,000 kids, the equivalent of two elementary schools - and Howard's schools are already crowded, particularly at the elementary school level. The rearranging is necessary to try to relieve crowding and better balance the feeds into middle and high schools.

The main culprits behind this round of boundary changes, though, are a new middle and elementary school, both slated to open next fall.

Filling the new schools, Folly Quarter Middle School and Bellows Springs Elementary School, requires a sort of domino shuffle that pulls pupils from overburdened schools in a step process, moving from one school to another to another until the new ones are filled.

To come up with the best possible means to do this, a committee of 18 community members has spent months shifting parcels of pupils, denoted by geographical polygons, from school to school to find the best permutation and meet a goal of filling most schools to between 90 percent and 110 percent capacity.

Ellen Giles, the School Boundary Line Committee chairwoman, says the current proposals do the least damage and the most good.

There's only one middle school plan, and it deals with 11 schools and moves 910 pupils, reducing the number of schools over 110 percent capacity from six to two.

"Because we built Folly Quarter in an area that was central to the other schools, there was not much contention as to who should go where," Drown said. "Elementary schools are not quite the same. Bellows Springs is not located centrally. There are more crowded schools and more students than seats for them in Howard County."

In the elementary school plans - labeled Plan One, Two, Three and Six - the proposed changes in the southeast area and western Columbia stay the same for all plans. The northeast region is the hot spot, because Bellows Springs "is smack in the middle of the area," Giles said. "Our approach was to fill that school and relieve overcrowding."

The elementary plans deal with 21 schools, 11 of which are at or above 110 percent capacity. Plan One would move 1,457 kids and leaves six at over 110 percent capacity. Plan Two would move 1,822 kids and leaves four schools over. Plan Three would move 1,416 kids, leaving three schools with more than 110 percent of allotted pupils, and Plan Six would move 1,532 kids, leaving three schools at above 110 percent capacity.

"In most plans, the Bellows Springs area itself changes very little," Giles said. "The changes are in how we split up the others. They meet different needs of different neighborhoods."

Glenmont parents don't like Plan One because it would move their 56 kids from Thunder Hill, which is within walking distance, to Phelps Luck, where they would have to be bused. It also suggests a plan that would raise Thunder Hill to 121.2 percent capacity from its current 98.7 percent.

"I can't understand why [Thunder Hill parents] are not kicking and screaming," said Denise Dyer of Glenmont.

Representatives from the Brampton Hills neighborhood, who all showed up in yellow shirts, are fine with Plan One because it would leave them alone, but that's where their satisfaction ends.

"I bought a house in Ellicott City in Brampton Hills because of the school system," said Cathy Smith, who has kids in fourth and first grades. "And as much as we want to believe the education is the same in all the schools in the county, we have our doubts until we're proven wrong."

But Smith's area, made up of about 150 pupils, is willing to compromise and move if they can be paired with Wheatfield, another neighborhood of about the same size.

"If we can move as a block of 300," she said, "we could change the tenor of any school," she said.

Plan Two would move them as a block to Phelps Luck, and Plan Three would move them all to Waterloo. Plan four is out all the way, Smith said. It would move Brampton to Waterloo.

"We're just moms and dads who want the best for our kids," Smith said. "They're not just seats to be moved here and there. They're children with lives."

Drown will again present the information in a meeting at 7:30 p.m. today at Centennial High School. After that, he and the committee will re-evaluate the proposals based on data expected in the next week and tweak them accordingly to come up with a recommended plan for the Board of Education, to be handed over with an alternate Oct. 24.

The board will then review and amend the plans and present them to the public in several hearings to be held late next month and early November. The final adoptions won't happen until the end of November.

"Until the fat lady sings in November, these are all interpretable in another way," Giles said. "In 10 years of doing this, I've never seen a plan go straight through from proposal to adoption. It could all change."

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