Communities battle on school districts

The Baltimore Sun

Most school board members will say that, aside from cutting the budget, redrawing school boundaries that can divide communities and uproot students is among the hardest choices decisions they make.

Anne Arundel County school board members go through the redistricting drill nearly every year. But this year, explosive growth in West County is forcing the board to wrestle with one of its toughest dilemmas yet involving boundaries and busing.

The board is in the middle of a battle between two communities, on the east and west sides of Route 3, over dueling redistricting proposals by Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell and a group of Piney Orchard parents that would free space at Crofton Elementary and fill a new Gambrills elementary school.

Last week, the board got to see the effects of the redistricting conflict firsthand as members listened to passionate testimony from more than two dozen people. Half urged the board to follow Maxwell's plan, and the other half argued for the alternative plan.

The divide was apparent, with residents from the east side of Route 3 sitting on one side of the aisle in Arundel High School's auditorium and supporters of the Piney Orchard alternative plan on the other side.

"Piney Orchard is our neighborhood school. We bought single-family homes so that our son could go to school with neighbors," said Stuart Smith, the father of a kindergartner at Piney Orchard Elementary.

"We were disillusioned by the redistricting committee's process. We got the feeling that they'd already figured out what they were going to do, and did it. Everybody says, 'Let's hurt as few people as possible,' but that leaves a few people very disenfranchised and others untouched."

The superintendent recommends shifting 210 Crofton Elementary students from the Walden community to the new Gambrills-area elementary school, which will open on Nantucket Drive in the fall with a capacity of 713 students.

The Gambrills school is being built to ease crowding at Crofton, which is increasingly cramped and uses 10 portables. The number of students is expected to further increase as the expansion of Fort Meade brings hundreds of families to the Crofton area and the Waugh Chapel Road corridor.

The new school would also get 384 students who live east of Route 3 and attend Four Seasons Elementary. To refill Four Seasons, Maxwell suggests moving about 200 students from Piney Orchard Elementary, which is about 150 students over capacity and uses eight portables.

Smith said Piney Orchard Elementary and Four Seasons Elementary, fed by neighborhoods on the west of Route 3, were most affected by the superintendent's plan, and he urged the board to allow other neighborhoods on the east side, including Walden and Waugh Chapel, to share the burden.

The parents say that the 200 students Maxwell wants to move would include older students who would have a tough time adjusting from walled classrooms at Piney Orchard to the open-space classrooms at Four Seasons. The Piney Orchard parents' alternative proposal would send only kindergartners - about 110 students - to Four Seasons.

The district's demographer, Chuck Yocum, said that alternative would require the school system to run an additional five buses between the Piney Orchard planned community and Four Seasons, an additional cost that might make board members wary.

Those on the east side say they are happy with Maxwell's plan because it divides the fewest neighborhoods. They also said the alternative plan forces "the youngest, most vulnerable students - our kindergartners" to bear the pressure of a move.

"Redistricting is never easy, and it's disruptive to those being moved," said Marcie Wallis, president of Waugh Chapel Elementary's PTA. "But the [Piney Orchard alternative] proposal treats other students like dots on a map."

The board must make a decision on new boundaries by April 30.

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