Redistricting plan raises doubts


It's one of those metaphysical questions, like the tree falling in the forest: If a student attends Bel Air High School for three years and then moves to a new school for one year and graduates, what school does the diploma come from?

The latest version of the proposed school redistricting plan was delivered to the Harford County school board last week, and in its wake came a new batch of questions from parents on topics ranging from staffing to traffic to scheduling to extracurricular activities to diplomas.

"It's a mistake to underestimate the power of that [Bel Air] Bobcat," said Cindy Mumby, president of the Parent Teacher and Student Association at Bel Air High, from where some students would be shifted to the new Patterson Mill complex in the fall of 2007.

"There is tremendous loyalty to the school, its administration and its staff and history," she said. "Is the plan to somehow re-create all that on the Patterson Mill campus?"

For many students who live in the Bel Air area, the proposal would mean a couple of years of swapping buildings and oddly configured school populations for middle and high school students. Those are new twists in the revised plan, which is intended to ease crowding and determine which students will go to the Patterson Mill combined middle and high school complex.

The school board will hold public hearings Wednesday and Thursday and is expected to adopt a final plan in April. Board members will likely have plenty of company at the hearings, judging from the reaction to the plan. Mumby, whose children attend Bel Air high and middle schools, said she and others have many questions and don't think two hearings are sufficient. She said she had requested additional sessions.

The committee that has been working on the redistricting project made only minor changes to the district boundaries in the original proposal, which evoked dissatisfaction from many parents the first time around.

"Our filter was, unless a proposal to move a different area was going to enhance the plan ... why would we make a change just for the sake of making a change?" said Joseph Licata, assistant superintendent for operations.

But the question of the timetable for shifting affected students is a different matter. School officials said that in recent months they heard many requests to let today's freshmen and sophomores stay at their current high schools until they graduate.

A new feature in the updated plan calls for most county students who will be juniors and seniors during the 2007-2008 school year to stay at and graduate from their current high school, even if they live in a neighborhood that becomes part of another district. The only exceptions would be those members of the classes of 2008 and 2009 who otherwise would have spent their junior and senior years at Bel Air High.

Students who are now freshmen and sophomores at Bel Air would be among the first to report to Patterson Mill when they are juniors and seniors. They would start there in the fall of 2007 and remain until they graduate.

This approach would decrease the number of students at Bel Air during renovation of the school, which is expected to be completed in 2009, Licata said.

The plan also would enable upperclassmen to stay together through graduation, Licata said.

"They're going to go through middle and high school with their same cohort of friends," he said.

During Patterson Mill's first year, juniors and seniors would be joined by eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders from neighborhoods reassigned to Patterson Mill, all of which will be carved out of the area that supplies students to Bel Air middle and high schools.

Bel Air High would house three grades during the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 school years. Bel Air Middle would have two grades instead of three in 2007-2008.

Some of those students would come from neighborhoods currently assigned to Bel Air, along with some from neighborhoods - primarily Forest Lake - that now send students to Fallston and a few that send students to C. Milton Wright.

By the 2008-2009 school year, seventh-graders from new Patterson Mill neighborhoods would be phased into the new complex while some of their former classmates would stay at Bel Air Middle.

And in 2009-2010, the sixth-graders would join them at Patterson Mill. That would be the first year that all students who live in new Patterson Mill neighborhoods would attend that school.

There would be increased transportation costs associated with the plan to keep juniors and seniors at their current schools. No cost estimate was given to the board.

Many of the parents at Tuesday's meeting who objected to the boundary revisions in the earlier plan didn't find much to like in the new plan.

"I'm disappointed that they didn't seem to really give consideration to our proposal," said Mark D. Lotz, who co-chairs a coalition of East Jarrettsville Road homeowners and parents. The group submitted signatures of people who wanted to stay in the C. Milton Wright enrollment area.

They didn't get the modification they hoped for, and neither did a large contingent of Fallston parents who opposed the original proposal.

But Thomas L. Fidler Jr., the Bel Air representative on the school board, said he was pleased that the committee added the grandfathering proposals because "the bulk of the e-mails that I got were, 'Don't move my kids. Don't move my kids for a year. Don't move them for two years.'"

"Am I saying that I'd approve this thing if it were voted on tonight? Absolutely not. Let's do our due diligence," he said, adding that those who want changes should not give up.

"Several of those proposals led to the dialog that led to this evening," he said. "Are they the results you all wanted? Unfortunately not. Somehow, some way, a plan will get approved. We will upset a bunch and make others happy."

And as for the diploma issue?

"That's a great question," Licata said. "We're not wed to any one solution. ... My idea is to explore the idea. Why not think of Patterson Mill as an extension of Bel Air for those first years? That would give the new cohort of people, really in the eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade levels, a chance to develop whatever it is going to be for Patterson Mill."

What's next?

The Harford County school board is reviewing the latest redistricting proposal and will conduct public hearings:

Wednesday, in the auditorium at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air

Thursday, in the auditorium at Aberdeen High School

Both hearings are scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m.

The board is expecting to adopt a final plan in April.

Details of the latest version of the plan are posted on the school system Web site, Information: 410-588-5203.

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