The planned opening of a 1,600-student middle and high school near Bel Air has prompted the Harford County Board of Education to consider something it hasn't touched in a quarter-century: countywide redistricting.
The dreaded "R" word means that, more than likely, thousands of county pupils will have to change schools when the Patterson Mill middle and high school complex opens in 2007, said school officials, who are considering options that will be scrutinized and refined over the next year.
The redistricting would likely bring vehement opposition from parents who bought their homes to be near certain schools and are loath to sever bonds with teachers and school friends.
"Redistricting is the last of our options, and it's the most intrusive," said Donald R. Morrison, county schools spokesman. "The teacher and the community become part of their lives. When you redistrict someone, that disrupts that comfort zone they have."
The last time students had to change schools in Harford County was in 2002, when several hundred students at Southampton Middle and C. Milton Wright High schools were relocated to alleviate overcrowded classrooms.
This time, countywide redistricting is likely because Patterson Mill will be built in a fast-growing area. And its planned location, on Patterson Mill Road just south of Bel Air, sits within several miles of at least five school districts.
Some students at C. Milton Wright, Bel Air, Fallston, Aberdeen and Edgewood high schools, as well as their middle school feeders, would likely be forced to change schools under redistricting, said Robert B. Thomas Jr., school board president. Redistricting would begin no sooner than the 2006-2007 school year, he said.
With the additional 1,600 seats at Patterson Mill and hundreds more seats at the newly renovated North Harford High, the school board would be able to ease countywide overcrowding.
Fallston Middle, for example, has 1,224 pupils this year, about 230 more than capacity. Havre de Grace Middle has 605 pupils this year, or about 180 below capacity.
There are 22 schools in the county with a total of 85 portable classrooms to handle overflows.
"Before, it was like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic - it wouldn't have made a difference" to redistrict countywide, Morrison said. "Now that we have more seats, it's going to give us the opportunity to balance the enrollment."
Some parents are dead set against redistricting.
When her son changed middle schools because of redistricting in 2000, Laurie Sweeney supported redistricting to relieve overcrowding.
But one unintended consequence was that her son, an eighth-grader, missed out on some school projects that were required during eighth grade at his previous school, Southampton Middle, but had been covered in seventh grade at his new school, Bel Air Middle.
"I don't think they take into account how different the schools are in the county," Sweeney said. "A lot of kids have huge adjustments going from one school to another."
Sweeney said she would oppose any plan that would force her son to change schools again.
That scenario is not likely, said Joseph Licata, assistant superintendent for operations.
The school board tries to avoid redistricting students twice. It also tries to avoid sending students from the same neighborhood to different schools, and splitting siblings, he said.
"In 18 years of doing this and probably 14 or 15 redistricting efforts, I can tell you overwhelmingly, it's much harder on the parents than the kids," Licata said. "The kids adapt very well. They make new friends, they participate in the activities offered at their school. We haven't really seen a lot of trauma on the part of the kids."
Opposition might not be all bad, Morrison said.
"People are basically pleased with their school, and that's a good thing - they don't want to leave," Morrison said. "I think we might be a little less happy if somebody said, 'Yes, please move me.'"