Larry Walker, of Ellicott City, demonstrates for redistricting plan counter to most demonstrators at Howard County system headquarter last month.
Larry Walker, of Ellicott City, demonstrates for redistricting plan counter to most demonstrators at Howard County system headquarter last month. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

No matter how school redistricting is resolved in Howard County, the current debate has underscored some serious misconceptions. One of the most obvious is that some home buyers believe that whatever public schools they are assigned at the time of a home purchase, they are guaranteed that assignment forever — or at least a very long time. That has never been the case. Maryland public school systems often change school boundaries, most often in response to population growth. As new parts of a county are developed, schools are eventually built, too, and then students have to be shifted around.

Howard County Times reporter Andrew Michaels discusses the Howard County school system's feasibility study, which reports that 23 of 76 schools are overcapacity. (Andrew Michaels and Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Howard County’s circumstances are a little different than what most county residents have experienced in the past but not exceptionally so. Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano this summer proposed shifting as many as 7,400 students. The proposal is intended to deal primarily with overcrowding, but also to reduce over-concentration of low-income students (those who qualify for free or reduced price school meals) in certain schools as well as carve out a new district for a planned high school in Jessup. Yet the focus has been on the redistribution of FARM-eligible students and the expectation that it will improve their educational outcomes. In turn, that’s created some tension as families with children in, or currently assigned to attend, the county’s highest performing schools face possible reassignment to schools that, while still highly rated compared to others across the state, have not scored at the very top in Howard.

Michael Martirano, Howard County Public Schools Superintendent.
Michael Martirano, Howard County Public Schools Superintendent. (Doug Kapustin / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

This is not just a crisis of faith in public education but, unfortunately, a potentially adverse outcome in economics. Opponents of redistricting point to home values predicated on school assignments. In some cases, buyers may even have been told by sellers or their agents something to the effect that buying on a certain street or block justified higher asking prices — premiums that might run into the tens of thousands of dollars. It’s one of the things that has made the current debate in Howard so painful. There are families who not only fear their children may get educationally shortchanged but they may be financially shortchanged, too, as home values adjust. Small wonder they are upset. But their anger is misdirected. School assignments aren’t guaranteed.

That’s why legislation recently unveiled by Howard County’s District 12 delegation is welcome news. Among the handful of proposals announced earlier this month is a bill that would add a disclaimer to be signed at a real estate closing acknowledging that “Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) schools designated for this property are subject to change at any time.” Again, that’s not a new circumstance, it’s more about better informing the public. Another proposal, also worthwhile, would prevent developers from advertising a new development as being in a certain school district. Realty companies don’t usually make those kind of claims in ads now, but they have been exceptions, unfortunately. Like the closing disclaimer, this would help keep buyers from jumping to conclusions about their local schools.

Other Maryland subdivisions may want to take note. Redistricting isn’t unique to fast-growing Howard County. Indeed, a lot of school systems accept overcrowding — and those outdoor portable classrooms that come with it — rather than risk the kind of public upset that redistricting so often stirs. If Howard’s current effort ends well (if, for example, thousands of students are shifted in the 2020-2021 school year and student outcomes are measurably better for it) other systems and county leaders may be emboldened to take similar action. It is notable that opponents of Kirwan Commission reforms and funding have called for more efficient use of existing resources. What better demonstration that schools are responsive to such concerns than to use buildings more efficiently and address long-standing equity issues to boot?

It is unfortunate that Howard County redistricting has sometimes brought out the worst in people. A lot of assumptions made about FARM-eligible students and detailed in letters to the school board or at recent public hearings, for example, are flat-out racist and repugnant. But it’s also brought out the best at times — people who are justifiably proud of one of Maryland’s top school systems and who want to see educational opportunities shared by all and not skewed toward the most affluent. Superintendent Martirano and his school board have demonstrated not only great ambition but great courage in grappling with these fundamental issues. Any effort by state lawmakers to help correct the wrongs of the past, including misconceptions about school assignments, should be welcome, too.