Harford residents share displeasure with school redistricting proposals at first in-person BOE meeting since March 2020

Jul. 13—Dozens of speakers spent most of first in-person Harford County Board of Education meeting in more than a year telling members how much they strongly oppose a redistricting proposal.

An increase in enrollment and overcrowded buildings over the past five years has led the school system to conduct a system-wide school boundary review. The system contracted FLO Analytics to develop maps with new boundaries in the attendance areas of local elementary, middle and high schools. The changes are meant to relieve overcrowding in schools that are above enrollment capacity and shift more students and resources to under-capacity schools.

However, feedback from the community show they see it as a problem.

Community members utilized both in-person and virtual public comment portion of the meeting to voice their concerns about balancing enrollment. Monday's meeting was the first time the public was welcomed to attend a school board meeting in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020.

Before public comment started, board member Sonja Karwacki said the system has received many emails regarding redistricting.

"This is not a done deal," she said. "The board has not seen a final draft of anything. And we have not made a decision, nor will we, until early next year."

Karwacki said the public can put their minds at ease knowing they are still early in the process. However, about 40 speakers talked about redistricting that night.

Those opposing redistricting plans largely cited bus rides extending longer than 35 minutes, students forced to attend schools without their friends and the danger of buses having to cross "deadly intersections."

One of the speakers was County Councilmember Robert Wagner. Wagner, who said he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the council, said there doesn't seem to be a simple solution. However, they should not be this far into it if no suggestion seems to work.

"And you shouldn't be busing students past schools that are closer by," he said.

Speakers were often in opposition of the proposal to move the MHS13 area, a northern chunk of the Fallston Middle and High schools zone, to the North Harford Middle and High schools zone. An MH8 zone, which consists of students who attend C. Milton Wright High and Southampton Middle schools, as well as MHS11, an area of Havre De Grace middle and high schools students, were also proposed to move to North Harford middle and high schools.

Brian Roberts, one of the in-person speakers from the MHS13 area, said that best solution is the one that impacts the least amount of students. He suggested the MH7 group, which has Bel Air Middle and High school students, be sent to North Harford schools, assuming that would impact less students, instead of the Fallston schools the proposal suggested.

"Not a single parent is speaking for it," Raj Bhat, who lives in a MH6 neighborhood currently zoned for Bel Air schools, said about the proposal. He asked if Bel Air Middle is the school that's overcrowded then to focus on them and not 12 other districts.

Superintendent Sean Bulson said the plan at the moment affects less than 7% of elementary students and about 6% of secondary students.

"The goal is to decrease those percentages," he said. "I'm not sure how that will shake out."

The first step of this process was the initiation where data was gathered and stakeholder guiding principle were considered. That took place in October through December. The second step was the assessment between January and June. It involved the advisory committee's review, community surveys and forums, and the staff's recommendation to the superintendent.

The advisory committee completed its work and made its recommendations to the superintendent June 23, according to the section of the school system's website on the balancing enrollment process.

The third and next step is community hearings conducted by the superintendent. After those hearings, the superintendent will make his recommendations to the school board, expected to happen sometime in October. After that, the fourth step will begin, when the Board of Education will hold public hearings with a target date of February to vote on their decisions.

Cornell Brown, assistant superintendent for operations, said locations for forums to hear their input will be announced later. He added the public will have plenty of time to engage and give input.