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School board members got a chance Monday to ask their own questions about a proposed comprehensive elementary school redistricting plan that has many Harford County parents in an uproar.

And, about 40 of those parents were on hand to hear explanations of how the controversial plan was developed by a group of school and county government bureaucrats, without input beforehand from communities that will be affected by the changes.

In defending the plan during a work session with the board held at Patterson Mill High and Middle School in Emmorton, a key school official said the increased travel time and distance some students who are changing schools will experience is “not a lot,” even as angry parents challenged his calculations.

The strategy in developing the redistricting plan used by the Superintendent’s Technical Advisory Committee, or STAC, has been publicly questioned by parents who say the new attendance boundaries are arbitrary and illogical.

Joe Licata, chief of administration and chairman of STAC, who briefed the school board on the comprehensive plan Monday, said the panel explored several strategies for developing the new attendance areas.

One strategy would have developed the attendance area for the new Red Pump Elementary north of Bel Air first, but Licata said there were too many students within the Red Pump region and relief for the current overcrowded schools surrounding the new school would not have been accomplished.

Instead, STAC first filled the underutilized schools in the perimeter and then worked within the affected region to develop the Red Pump attendance area.

This not only allowed underutilized schools to be filled, it also reduced the number of students available to develop the Red Pump attendance area and brought relief to the most overcrowded schools, according to Licata.

“The domino effect takes place — we know if we need to make room in the region’s most overcrowded schools, we have to move folks out to the areas that have the most space,” he said. “We had to use the domino effect because of the location of the additional capacity.”

For example, STAC needed to bring relief to Emmorton Elementary, which is operating at 128.2 percent of capacity.

In order to do so, students were moved north to Ring Factory, which is operating at 93 percent of capacity, and, as a result, Ring Factory became overcrowded.

Ring Factory students were then moved north to Homestead Wakefield, creating the domino effect.

“We would have left Ring Factory intact, but we need to provide relief to other schools,” Board President Mark Wolkow said.

Proposed changes

Licata reviewed the proposed changes for each elementary school.

Of the 32 elementary schools, the attendance areas of Abingdon, Bakerfield, Church Creek, Meadowvale, Hall’s Cross Roads, Havre de Grace, Roye-Williams and William S. James elementary schools did not change.

With the proposed plan, a total of five schools — Bakerfield, Darlington, Norrisville, North Bend and Red Pump, which is set to open next fall — remain at 100 percent of operating capacity or higher.

“We believe we are going to be able to provide more relief to get them closer to our targeted goal between now and the time the plan is approved,” Licata said.

He said STAC will be tweaking the draft plan to utilize the official 2010 enrollment figures released last week.

“We don’t think it will have a significant impact on the proposal or suspect it will create any major changes,” he said.

Parameters

A total of 51 parameters were developed by the focus groups to serve as guidelines for the redistricting plan.

“We tried to adhere to as many of those requirements as possible,” Licata said. “We were pretty successful in trying to meet those requirements.”

One parameter causing the most apprehension among parents, according to Licata, is the time or distance students will have to travel to their new elementary school.

He said some parents are upset their children will travel a greater distance to a new elementary school, when their current elementary school is less than three miles away.

“There is no magic number,” Licata said, adding that putting three to five miles more on the distance traveled is not unreasonable.

One reason for the increased distance is the school system cannot change the current locations of the schools.

“Everyone wants the school to be in the middle of the attendance area, and that is not going to happen,” Licata said.

Parents of students at Youth’s Benefit in Fallston have been the most vocal about the distance their children will have to travel to Jarrettsville Elementary.

Licata said he mapped out the bus route to Jarrettsville from Fallston, which he said equaled 5.2 miles. From the same location, he said the bus route to Youth’s Benefit was two to three miles, a difference of only a few miles.

Many community members at Monday’s work session disagreed with Licata’s calculations, shouting the distance was longer than a few miles, but the interruption was ignored and Licata’s presentation continued.

“From a planning standpoint the distance between the two [schools] is not a lot,” Licata said.

While it is not a parameter, parents have said they want their children to remain in the same school community as their parks and rec program.

“A common issue raised during redistricting is splitting of parks and rec regions and ZIP codes,” Licata said. “We hear about property values and we hear about services in a community, but the fact of the matter is, and this is going to sound cold, is that we can’t consider those things. Parks and rec is a community service and has no bearing on us to meet the redistricting goals.”

Influencing development

Members of the Fallston community have said they don’t want to see the percentage of capacity at Youth’s Benefit drop below 100, which would lift the building moratorium in the area.

“We [the school system] don’t influence adequate public facilities, we react to what happens,” Licata said. “Our responsibility is to ensure our schools are not overcrowded.”

Licata said the Harford County Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, established by the county council, is a mechanism to stall development until a provision is made to improve any school overcrowding situation.

“We have to react to what happens with residential growth,” he said. “We are still recovering from all of that growth.”

Once an area is out of moratorium, Licata said there is no limit to the number of requests for development per subdivision.

“We are in reaction mode again,” he said. “But the land just doesn’t exist. There aren’t any more of those huge parcels.”

“It’s nobody’s fault, it’s growth,” he added.

What’s next?

Now that the board has received its presentation, Licata said STAC will reconvene and meet with school transportation officials to gather more data for the school board and the public.

Since the redistricting process fell two months behind schedule because of unforeseen circumstances, according to school officials, the length of time the community can provide input on the plan has been cut back.

“The timing was off as far as when we were going to start taking that input, but we still have a period of about three months to accept input, which is longer than we have had in previous redistricting efforts,” Licata said. “Three months of receiving input is adequate.”

He said STAC is not asking the community to come up with a whole new comprehensive plan, but to provide modifications that would improve the plan.

“Having said that, I don’t think a three-month period to submit a counterproposal is not adequate,” he said.

Six regional public hearings will be held through January with the first meeting Monday at Harford Tech from 7 to 9 p.m.

Members of the community will be able to provide feedback and engage in a brief dialog with the board.

Feedback can also be submitted through the school system’s e-mail, elementaryredistricting@hcps.org, through February.

Licata said about 600 responses have already been e-mailed.

STAC will present the feedback and the proposals to the board at another work session, which is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 7

A subsequent public hearing will be held in February.

The plan will need to be approved by March 1 in order to be implemented on schedule. Licata said STAC will most likely seek board approval on Feb. 28. The goal is to have the plan in place by the start of the 2011-12 school year this coming August when the new Red Pump school is scheduled to open.

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