What was the thinking behind a countywide elementary school redistricting plan released by Harford County Public Schools in early November? Parents who have been asking that question got their most comprehensive answer to date, at school board work session held Monday, November 29, 2010 at Patterson Mill Middle/High School in Bel Air.
The rationale behind the draft redistricting plan, along with some supporting data not previously released, was presented to the Harford County Board of Education with the approval of Superintendent Robert M. Tomback.
Conducting the presentation to the school board was Joseph P. Licata, chairman of the committee that drafted the plan, the Superintendent’s Technical Advisory Committee (STAC). For the benefit of the public, Licata explained that the school board’s authority for redistricting comes from state law, and he reviewed the goals of the elementary redistricting plan for all 33 elementary schools in the county system: to fill the new Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air for the 2010-11 school year; to provide relief to overcrowded elementary schools such as Prospect Mill and Emmorton; and to balance enrollment among the remaining elementary schools to somewhere around 85 – 95% of capacity.
In developing the draft, Licata explained that STAC used technology that allows school officials to see the land parcels where all 17,000 elementary students reside. He also provided the school board with updated enrollment data showing the effect of the plan at each school; a chart showing the proposed movement of students to and from each school; and information on planned residential development in each school district, with the caveat that planned units do not always materialize and when they do, the timing is unknown.
The updated enrollment data, the chart showing the movement of students, and the information on planned residential development appears below. School officials have encouraged parents who may be dissatisfied with the draft to use available data to recommend modifications before the school board finalizes the redistricting plan in late February.
To explain why some communities were moved and not others, Licata outlined the strategy used. Red Pump was not filled first in the comprehensive plan because the overflow from nearby schools would fill the new 696-seat school, but wouldn’t leave enough empty seats in the area to allow the backfilling that would relieve overcrowded schools farther away. Instead, STAC first moved students from some overcrowded schools out to perimeter schools where there was space, then backfilled to provide relief to other overcrowded areas. Schools with extra room in the northern part of the county for example, were filled first so that relief could be provided to the Bel Air area, in a domino effect.
Overcrowding at William Paca/Old Post Road and Youth’s Benefit Elementary Schools was handled via the same strategy. Licata explained that relief for William Paca/Old Post Road came from moving some students south where space was available; moving students to open seats in the north reduced Youth’s Benefit’s enrollment.
Among the constraints limiting the draft plan was geography, Licata said. Although total elementary enrollment is at about 90% of capacity countywide (including Red Pump), he said, keeping all schools below 100% was difficult because some of the schools with excess capacity are twenty miles from those that are overcrowded. Some under utilized schools, such as Roye Williams and Havre de Grace, were further constrained from receiving students because of their location in or between municipalities, or like Edgewood, they offered special programs to students countywide, and therefore need the extra space for non-districted students. Licata also said that it didn’t make sense for STAC to move students from one underutilized school to another.
Under the draft, five schools, Bakerfield, Darlington, Norrisville, North Bend and Red Pump, remain over 100% of capacity, but Licata said that he thought they would get further relief by the time the draft is finalized.
Parameters recommended by parent focus groups to guide the drafting of the plan were also considered, Licata said, but the parameters couldn’t always be met. Keeping bus rides under 45 minutes, for example, was difficult to achieve in the northern parts of the county. By contrast, he said bus rides with added distances of two to six miles, or rides that would take students past one school to deliver them to another school farther away were not a factor, because they were necessary to balance enrollment. “The schools are where they are,” Licata said, explaining that schools couldn’t be moved to the center of their respective attendance areas. Board President Mark Wolkow later added that the school system couldn’t pick and choose school sites because they were either donated or sold to the county, adding, “We take what we can get.”
Redistricting is not done every year in Harford County as it is in some counties, Licata said. But he emphasized that there would be no changes to middle and high school attendance areas at this time, and pointed to the 2006 secondary school redistricting as a success, although he acknowledged that some secondary schools are now filled to capacity.
Questions from the Board:
Licata went through all 33 of the proposed elementary school maps one by one, showing how the above strategies and constraints played out in each district. Some schools with very dense populations like Abingdon ES, showed little or no change. By contrast, the map of Prospect Mill, one of the most overcrowded school in the county, was a patchwork of colors used to show how several groups of students would be sent to nearby schools. Several school board members asked questions along the way.
Board President Mark Wolkow asked about the estimated pupil yield from planned residential development. A pupil yield study is done every year, leading to fairly accurate estimations Licata said, adding that the estimated yield is .25 students per town home and .34 students per single family home. Planned development was considered in some cases, Licata said, later citing Church Creek Elementary and the planned additions to the Holly Woods development as an example.
Wolkow also asked for an update on the number of elementary schools that will feed more than one middle school, and garnered applause from the audience when he questioned whether very small groups of students should be added to an elementary school if they are the only group slated to attend a different middle school. Licata had said earlier that as a result of redistricting, there will be more split feeders, which Wolkow said numbered the 10-12 elementary schools currently.
Public School Choice is a transfer option allowed under federal law for students who are in Title I schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress. But in response to another question from Wolkow, Licata said that the number of students affected is too unpredictable from year to year to be considered in redistricting. Currently, students at William Paca/Old Post Road and Magnolia Elementary have the option to transfer, and Licata said that School Choice will be accommodated in future years by using available space in the buildings where they are received, by increasing class size and/or the use of portables. William S. James is currently a receiving school under the federal program.
Schools such as Edgewood which appear under utilized, but also draw students countywide for special education or intervention programs, prompted Board Member Tom Evans to ask for the number of students involved in special programs to be provided for further review. “The public needs to have that clarity,” Board President Wolkow added, although Licata cautioned that the numbers were also unpredictable in the out years.
Certain communities and schools seemed to be on the radar. Wolkow noted that under the draft, the Stone Ridge neighborhood had 119 students being moved to Homestead Wakefield from Fountain Green, putting Homestead at 95% of capacity and leaving Fountain Green at 89%, with no substantive residential development planned for Fountain Green.
Board Member Alysson Krchnavy said that she would be taking a closer look at 32 students being moved from Forest Hill to North Bend. She also asked whether bus routes were considered, but Licata said the routes wouldn’t be final until the plan was in place. Krchnavy got applause when she expressed concerns about “little chunks” of students being displaced.
Wolkow asked about the rationale behind the moves at Ring Factory, which would be at 93% of capacity both before and after the redistricting proposal. Licata said that Emmorton students were brought to Ring Factory to provide relief to Emmorton, and using Rt. 924 as a dividing line, the Glenwood neighborhood and part of Colonial Acres were sent from Ring Factory to Homestead Wakefield to make room. Licata said that similar scenarios played out in a number of places countywide.
Although Riverside Elementary is sending some students to Joppatowne under the draft, Board Member Wolkow noted that the enrollment went up, not down on an accompanying chart. Licata said that it might be a typo and he would investigate.
Board Member Tom Evans said he’d had “quite a few inquiries” regarding Youth’s Benefit Elementary in Fallston. Parents there have been speaking out at board meetings, circulating petitions, displaying yard signs, and have been seen wearing t-shirts bearing ‘stop redistricting’ signs. Several were among the forty or so parents in the audience.
Evans, who represents Fallston, said that a group of students near Pleasantville Road were moved out of Youth’s Benefit under the draft, but they lived closer to that school than they did to Jarrettsville where they would be transferred. Licata said that the distance to Jarrettsville Elementary from the nearby Rtes. 152 and 165 was just over five miles (some audience members disagreed, calling out “Drive it!”). Licata said that from a planning standpoint, additional distances of four to six miles were not considered unreasonable.
Parents at Youth’s Benefit have also been concerned about increased residential development in their area, made possible in part by the lifting of a building moratorium in any school attendance area where enrollment drops to 110% of capacity or less.
Licata said later that the issue arises whenever redistricting brings school enrollment under capacity, but the school system had no authority over residential development and could only react when schools are overcrowded. “That’s why we’re here this evening, it’s nobody’s fault, it’s growth. It’s how you manage it that’s the tricky part,” he said.
Harford County Government manages growth through various means, and within the confines of state regulations on Smart Growth, priority funding and the environment. The Harford County Council sets the moratorium threshold for schools through Adequate Public Facilities legislation, which Licata described as a tool to stall residential development until overcrowding is alleviated. Licata said that problems occur because once a moratorium is lifted, residential development is unlimited until overcrowding recurs. He said that there was some good news in that large parcels inside the development envelope, such as Monmouth Meadows in Abindgon, no longer exist.
In response to another question from Board Member Krchnavy, Licata said that parks and recreation programs, zip codes and property values were not considered by STAC because they are not a factor in balancing enrollment – Licata’s comment that was met with more disapproval from the audience.
More Factors to Consider:
Between now and the final vote on redistricting scheduled for late February, the Harford County Board of Education will consider changes to the draft plan along with several other factors.
The board may decide to grandfather fifth graders, and possibly younger students and siblings, to remain in their current schools until they graduate. The offset will be the cost of running two buses into neighborhoods and the impact on enrollment in the sending and receiving schools.
Boundary Exceptions, which are granted to individual students for one year at time, are another variable – board members could decide to loosen or further restrict boundary exceptions in the future. Board Member Krchnavy asked for data on the number of current boundary exceptions and the reasons they were requested.
Parents can request boundary exceptions for day care, hardship and programmatic reasons, but boundary exceptions are generally limited if they will overcrowd the receiving school. HCPS staff members are currently granted boundary exceptions without regard to enrollment at the receiving school, a factor that could further complicate the effort to balance enrollment.
Parent focus groups used in the redistricting process have generated complaints, especially after STAC presented the plan to the groups without scheduling further meetings to receive their feedback. Licata said that some of the school-based focus groups were still meeting among themselves and planning to submit alternative proposals. Those proposals, along with input from individuals, would all be analyzed by STAC, posted on the school system’s Web site, and shared with the school board. “We have nothing to hide,” Licata said. He said the draft was made public earlier than planned to make up for previous delays, and that STAC was not expecting communities to come up with new plans for the entire county. Instead, he said that communities should provide input about their own area and that the three-month timeframe prior to the board vote in late February was adequate.
In conclusion, Licata said that this was his 16th redistricting and the original draft changed in some way for each one before it was finalized; he said that he expected the current plan would change as well. The school system had received 600 emails on redistricting so far, he said, and all would be read and forwarded to school board members. Many would be answered, Licata said, with common questions posted as FAQs on the school system’s Web site. He asked for patience from those awaiting responses and noted that emails containing only editorial comments would not likely be answered, nor would requests for any information that might identify individual students.
Near the end of the meeting, Board Member Krchnavy summed up a long evening with a comment to Licata, “Thank you. We needed a place to start.”
The following regional hearings for elementary redistricting have been scheduled from 7 – 9pm. Members of the public are invited to attend hearings in any region. Speakers will be asked to fill out a card and will be given two minutes or more to speak, depending on the size of the turnout. Those wishing to submit written testimony are encouraged to bring copies for board members. Unlike the public comment period a regular school board meetings, board members may dialogue with speakers at the hearings.
December 6 Harford Technical High School cafeteria
January 12 Aberdeen High School auditorium
January 19 Bel Air and Fallston High School auditoriums
January 20 Edgewood and North Harford High School auditoriums
In addition, a board work session is scheduled for February 7 for proposals to be discussed. A final vote on elementary redistricting is planned for late February.
Please note that state rated capacities are subject to change each year based on negotiations with the state.
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