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‘A no-win situation’: Baltimore County tackles new elementary school district lines

Elementary students in central Baltimore County could be switching schools next fall, as district leaders redraw enrollment zone lines to alleviate overcapacity issues.

Over 100 parents and school officials gathered at Cockeysville Middle School Wednesday night for the first of two information and feedback-collecting sessions. Attendees poured over four proposed redistricting maps hung on the walls, filling out surveys to advocate for their children.

In July, the county board of education approved a new map for central middle school enrollment districts, after months of delay and debate. They’ll face the same decision for the region’s elementary schools in March.

Most agree that solving the over enrollment issues is a top priority. But some also worry that moving young children and dividing neighborhoods will have a negative impact.

Julie Saxenmeyer, president of the parent-teacher association for West Towson Elementary school, points to what maps call Zone 1901 – but what she calls her family neighborhood.

On half of the proposed maps, 12 children — including hers — would be bussed one and a half miles away to Riderwood Elementary School, leaving their neighborhood school that’s in walking distance.

“There's nothing against that other school. It's a great school, but our kids walk,” Saxenmeyer said. “It's environmentally friendly. Our school is a green school. So it flies in the face of that. And there's already a busing problem in the county. So putting more kids on a bus doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.”

Jeff Hindes is a parent at Lutherville Lab Elementary School and member of the redistricting committee, composed of four representatives — one principal, one teacher and two parents — from each of the 19 affected schools.

He says there are many parents like Saxenmeyer who don’t want their children to switch schools. But the redistricting process is a “balancing act,” he said.

“Our primary considerations are trying to relieve capacity, trying to maintain or increase the level of diversity, and we’re also trying to do that while affecting as few kids as possible,” Hindes said.

The redistricting committee is tasked with reviewing – and ultimately recommending, the redrawn maps created by Cropper GIS, an external consultant group. The committee narrowed down the original 12 maps to four.

Lutherville Lab, Hindes’ school, faces no changes under the four proposed maps.

Saxenmeyer’s neighborhood was originally only divided in one of the 12 maps. Now, that change is present on two of the four. Still, she says, the process has been “very democratic.”

“It is almost a no-win situation,” Saxenmeyer said. “There's never going to be 100% of the people happy.”

The only solution to the ‘whole puzzle’

For parents and teachers at overcrowded schools, redistricting seems like the only solution.

Jessie Jaeger is a paraeducator, a teacher who offers support in needed classrooms, and a parent at Hampton Elementary School. She says the school has been overcapacity for years.

In 2020, Hampton was the only school to take in overflow students from nearby Pleasant Plains Elementary School – despite already facing an influx from 700 newly-built homes in their own neighborhood, Jaeger said.

“We as the Hampton community kept saying, ‘Hang on a second, you're not looking at the numbers right,’” she said. “‘And why are no other schools being involved to help Pleasant Plains?’”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. And online learning skewed enrollment numbers, Jaeger said.

“But literally as soon as we come back to school, here we are,” she said.

Last year, Jaeger said, the school enrolled 815 students. It’s built to only hold 662.

This year, Hampton’s pre-K students relocated to neighboring schools to relieve pressure – and the district gave them trailers for extra class space.

But with the current enrollment zones, Hampton still supports over 750 students. The new maps would all bring enrollment down to under the maximum capacity.

Jaeger is relieved the county school leaders are no longer “kicking the can down the road” by looking at the whole region, instead of only a few schools like they did in 2020.

“It's a lot easier to solve the smaller puzzle pieces when you can see the whole puzzle,” she said.

Jaeger understands first-hand that switching schools can be scary, especially for young children. She went to four different schools before reaching third grade because of redistricting.

“But I feel like every student in Baltimore County deserves a good and equitable education. And I don't think it should matter where they live, they should be able to go to a school that has a safe facility and the resources that they need,” she said. “And if shifting some kids from one school to another enables that, that's what we need to do.”

Jaeger also knows that redistricting is the only meaningful step Baltimore County Public Schools can take to address overcapacity issues.

“We need more schools. And that's up to the state and the county, whether they actually care about our students,” she said. “They're talking about universal pre-K, but where are we going to put all those kids? They keep building up apartments, but they're not doing anything to build more schools.”

The central region redistricting committee will make recommendations to the Baltimore County Board of Education in late February. Board members will vote to adopt a final map of enrollment zones on March 19, after a public hearing earlier in the month.

“It's a long process,” said Saxenmeyer, who’s advocating to keep her family at West Towson Elementary. “We're in for the long haul, as long as it takes.”

Bri Hatch (they/them) is a Report for America Corps Member joining the WYPR team to cover education.
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