White aims to 'respect' communities as Baltimore County addresses high school capacity issues

During a Listening and Learning stop Oct. 2 at Catonsville High School, Baltimore County Public Schools interim Superintendent Verletta White said she understands the importance of neighborhood connections when it comes to adjusting school boundary lines.

“We know that people ... purchase homes, many times, based on the school,” White said. “It’s one of the first questions that we ask, right?”

White’s comments came as BCPS is developing a plan to reduce overcrowding in its high schools. Stakeholders in the southwestern part of the county have indicated they’re particularly concerned about proposals to redistrict students.

The process started during the summer when Sage Policy Group was contracted to present possible solutions to overcrowding in Baltimore County high schools and then gather the public’s input. Sage first presented seven different scenarios in July that used a combination of redistricting, school construction and magnet programs to reduce crowding.

Feedback sessions held in July 2018 were used to generate three scenarios. Those scenarios can be found online at https://bit.ly/2QyPui6

BCPS has been asking the community to take online surveys. Sage has produced a report showing how various Baltimore County school areas responded to survey questions.

Of the 3,352 respondents to the survey, 1,123 — more than one-third — identified themselves as being from the Southwest Area, which includes Catonsville, Woodlawn, Lansdowne high schools, and Western School of Technology; 1,068 identified as being from the Central Area, which includes Dulaney, Hereford, Loch Raven, Towson high schools and Carver School of Arts and Technology.

Those polled mostly agreed on where magnet programs and schools should be located and on the maximum amount of money — around $600 million — the county should spend on constructing or renovating schools to reduce overcrowding.

But two questions set the Southwest Area apart from other county areas.

The Southwest and Central areas both said the most important objective the school system should pursue while redistricting is to impact the fewest number of students — the other three areas of the county answered that the most important objective is to reduce overcrowding at high schools.

In another question, the Southwest Area of the county said by a 35 percentage-point margin, that the top priority when planning capital projects in the county should be minimizing the need for redistricting. All other areas of the county said the most important priority when planning capital projects should be capacity relief for overcrowded schools.

Karin Wilson, a Catonsville parent who has children at Hillcrest Elementary, Catonsville Middle and Catonsville High, said she is worried that a lot of negative and hurt feelings will carry into the eventual redistricting process.

She said she’s concerned that the “loudest” voices in the community are the ones that BCPS is responding to — and not necessarily doing what’s best in a “holistic” way for the county.

Wilson said that has “already happened,” because in the first set of seven scenarios released by Sage in July included Woodlawn some redistricting proposals. In the three new scenarios, “Woodlawn gets nothing,” she said.

Woodlawn was 650 students under capacity last school year.

White said she understands the “angst” that can develop during a school boundary process and that communities in the Baltimore area feel a connection to their schools. White said BCPS wants to “honor” and “respect” that connection as much as possible.

We “know that preserving those neighborhoods and schools, that's important to Baltimore County residents overall,” she said. Let “me just say that with any type of boundary process, not everybody is going to be happy with the process because there are certain things that everybody wants. ‘I don’t want my child in an overcrowded school,’ everybody will agree on that.

“But then we ask the question, ‘Well who's willing to have their child go to another school?’ The hands go down,” she said.

In a late July letter, White said BCPS would direct Sage to consider school conditions and community continuity in presenting further options to relieve overcrowding.

All three of the recent scenarios include boundary changes for Catonsville, Lansdowne high schools and Western School of Technology.

The scenarios are not formal proposals, nor are they guides for how the Baltimore County Board of Education will vote to move forward, said Russell Brown chief accountability officer for BCPS.

Any process that calls for boundary changes would come after the school board approves new capital projects, including construction or renovation, following the completion of the Sage study, Brown said.

cboteler@baltsun.com

twitter.com/codyboteler

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