Equitable Goals, Meet Community Stakeholders: School Redistricting in Howard County

Jonathan Lucido*

I.  Introduction

Howard County, Maryland ranks third among the wealthiest counties in the United States.  See Gaby Galvin, The 10 Richest Counties in the U.S., U.S. News (Dec. 6, 2018), https://www.usnews.com/news/healthiest-communities/slideshows/richest-counties-in-america?onepage.  Additionally, the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) is ranked as the best school district in the entire state of Maryland.  Ivan De Luce, The Best Public-School District in Every State, Bus. Insider (May 23, 2019, 1:41 PM), https://www.businessinsider.com/the-best-school-district-in-every-state-2019-5; Howard County Public Schools, Niche, https://www.niche.com/k12/d/howard-county-public-schools-md/ (last visited Oct. 19, 2019).  However, the benefits of having the highest ranked school district and access to quality educational programs comes with a cost, as Howard County has one of the highest property tax rates in Maryland.  See generally 2019–2020 Md. Dep’t Assessments & Tax’n County & Municipality Tax Rates, https://dat.maryland.gov/Documents/statistics/Taxrates_2019.pdf.

Community stakeholders have started to question the benefits they receive in exchange for paying these higher taxes, as the HCPSS will make major structural changes under the leadership of its superintendent, Dr. Michael J. Martirano.  See Jess Nocera, Howard Redistricting: Superintendent Proposes Moving Nearly 7,400 Students to Address Overcrowding, Poverty Inequities, Balt. Sun (Aug. 22, 2019, 7:03 PM) [hereinafter Howard Redistricting], https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/howard/cng-ho-schools-redistricting-recommendations-0822-20190822-rxprk5uf4zcqllhtmotuxg4j5i-story.html.  Through a unanimously approved measure, the seven-member HCPSS Board of Education (the Board) directed Dr. Martirano to initiate a comprehensive redistricting process on January 24, 2019.  See Erin Hardy & Jess Nocera, With the Final Vote Tonight, Here’s a Timeline of What’s Happened in the Howard Redistricting Process, Balt. Sun (Nov. 21, 2019, 5:00 AM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/howard/cng-ho-redistricting-timeline-20191007-4vofm7bchbh33kjtgq6ccnuqzq-story.html.  Dr. Martirano agreed with the Board and stated “redistricting is needed to address countywide student enrollment.”  Id.  On June 13, 2019, the HCPSS released a feasibility study designed to examine enrollment problems and potential actions to fix those issues.  Id.; see generally Howard Cty. Pub. Sch. Sys., Office of Sch. Planning, Feasibility Study: An Annual Review of Long-Term Capital Planning and Attendance Area Adjustment Options 2 (2019) [hereinafter Feasibility Study], https://www.hcpss.org/f/schoolplanning/2019/2019-feasibility-study.pdf (executive summary detailing key components of study).

II.  The Policy Considerations and Requirements Driving Redistricting

The Board’s move to modify the current boundaries in the HCPSS is driven by two key considerations: capacity utilization and Board Policy 6010 (Policy 6010).  Id. at 17.  Capacity utilization is determined by dividing the number of enrolled students at a school by its pre-determined enrollment capacity, the result of which is then converted into a percentage.  See Nat’l Ctr. for Educ. Stat.’s, Educ. Facilities Data Task Force, Facilities Information Management: A Guide for State and Local Education Agencies 16–17 (2003), https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/2003400.pdf.  The HCPSS defines this statistic as “the comparison of a facility’s program capacity and its enrollment or projected future enrollment.”  Feasibility Study, supra, at 13.

Capacity utilization statistics are calculated differently based on two factors: (1) the formulas used by the county in which the school is located and (2) whether it is an elementary, middle, or high school.  See id. at 13–15.  The HCPSS calculates its elementary school capacity based on designations: twenty-two students per kindergarten classroom, nineteen students per classroom designated for grades one and two, and twenty-five students per classroom designated for grades three through five.  See id. at 14.   HCPSS middle school and high school capacities are computed by factoring in the county’s minimum square footage requirement for a teaching space, which is 660 feet at all levels of education.  Id. at 13.  The middle school utilization capacity is calculated by multiplying 95% of the total number of teaching stations by 20.5 students.  Id.  Finally, the HCPSS calculates a high school’s utilization by multiplying 80% or 85% of the total teaching stations by twenty-five students.  Id.

In addition to these local capacity formulas, the HCPSS is required to report state capacities.  Id. at 15.  The state-rated capacities differ from local-rated capacities, in part because the minimum square footage for teaching spaces is significantly less at all levels, pursuant to the formula of the state.  See id. at 14–15.  The methodologies also differ because the state-rated capacities for middle schools and high schools are determined by a formula that involves both teaching station calculations and classroom specific calculations.  See id. at 13, 15.  Key differences arising out of these calculations can be rather small or very large, depending on the school.  See id. at 15 tbl.2.8 (providing a table listing local and state capacities).

These statistics are important because of Policy 6010, which defines target utilization as “[e]nrollment between 90 and 110% utilization of the program capacity of a permanent school facility.”  Bd. of Educ. of Howard Cty., Policy 6010 School Attendance Areas 3 (2019), https://www.boarddocs.com/mabe/hcpssmd/Board.nsf/files/BA6TZJ6BABE7/$file/6010.pdf.  More specifically, Policy 6010 requires the Board to consider attendance area adjustments when certain circumstances or scenarios exist.  See id. at 3–4.  Those scenarios include plans for a new school, an addition to an existing school, or when “[s]chool attendance area projections are outside the target utilization.”  Id.  Two of these scenarios currently exist in the HCPSS, which spurred the Board and Dr. Martirano to initiate a redistricting process.  See Feasibility Study, supra, at 25, 29, 32 (highlighting capacity utilization issues); see Jess Nocera, Howard Board of Education Approves Design for 13th High School, Balt. Sun (Mar. 15, 2019, 9:00 AM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/howard/ph-ho-cf-school-board-meeting-0321-story.html.

III.  Taking a Closer Look: Statistics and Concerns

Following the community input sessions held in July, Dr. Martirano released the Attendance Area Adjustment Plan (the Plan) on August 20, 2019, as part of his Strategic Call to Action initiative.  See generally Michael J. Martirano, Superintendent’s Attendance Area Adjustment Plan (2019), https://go.boarddocs.com/mabe/hcpssmd/Board.nsf/files/BFATU378FF8A/$file/08%2020%202019%20Attendance%20Area%20Adjustment%20BR.pdf (prepared by Cooperative Strategies, L.L.C.).  Two of the “driving priorities” of the Plan are to: (1) cost effectively “[b]alance capacity utilization among schools throughout HCPSS” and (2) “[a]dvance equity by addressing the distribution of students participating in the Free and Reduced price meals program . . . to the extent feasible.”  Id. at 9.

In general, the HCPSS has a rather balanced representation of multiple ethnic categories over a total population of 57,907 students.  See Fast Facts, Howard County Pub. Sch. Sys., https://www.hcpss.org/f/aboutus/profile.pdf (last updated Apr. 2019).  The overall composition of the student body is 22.4% Asian, 24% African American, 11.3% Hispanic/Latino, 35.8% white, 5% or less of other races, and 6.2% of individuals of two or more races.  Id.

However, the student bodies at individual high schools are not as balanced as the overall student population.  Compare Howard Cty. Pub. Sch. Sys., Glenelg High School Profile, HCPSS, https://www.hcpss.org/f/schools/profiles/prof_hs_glenelg.pdf (last updated Jan. 2019) (reporting 11.3% Asian, 5% Black/African American, 5% Hispanic/Latino, 76.2% white, 5% or less American Indian/Alaskan, 5% or less percent Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 5% or less of two or more races) with Howard Cty. Pub. Sch. Sys., Oakland Mills High School Profile, HCPSS, https://www.hcpss.org/f/schools/profiles/prof_hs_oaklandmills.pdf (last updated Jan. 2019) (reporting 7.2% Asian, 44.4% Black/African American, 20.8% Hispanic/Latino, 19.7% white, 5% or less American Indian/Alaskan, 5% or less Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 7.7% of two or more races).  Moreover, the students who participate in the Free and Reduced-Price Meal programs (FARM) are more concentrated in certain areas, giving rise to equity concerns from Dr. Martirano’s perspective.  See Martirano, supra, at 13–14 (providing information on FARM statistics, proposed changes, and percentage change as a result of reassignments).

The release of Dr. Martirano’s plan followed a request made by three county council members to “develop a plan to ‘desegregate’ its schools.”  Hardy & Nocera, supra.  However, Dr. Martirano used different language in an interview to describe the Plan’s purpose when he called it “a true example of equity in action, looking at our capacity and our poverty rate so children all across the school system can receive an equitable education.”  Howard Redistricting, supra.

The Plan’s proposed changes garnered a large response from the community.  Jess Nocera, Howard School Board Schedules Additional Public Hearings, Balt. Sun (Oct. 2, 2019, 7:00 AM) (detailing high level of community involvement for redistricting hearings).  One problem that arises from the Plan is that students at schools with strong post-secondary preparation statistics may be reassigned to schools with less favorable post-secondary preparation statistics.  Compare Howard Cty. Pub. Sch. Sys., River Hill High School Profile, HCPSS, https://www.hcpss.org/f/schools/profiles/prof_hs_riverhill.pdf (reporting strong standardized testing performance and participation), with Howard Cty. Pub. Sch. Sys., Wild Lake High School Profile, supra (reporting significantly lower SAT participation and performance).  These statistics do not definitively indicate that HCPSS schools with comparatively weaker statistics provide a poor education, and students at schools like Wild Lake High School challenge negative stereotypes about their schools.  See Dana Goldstein, Where Civility Is a Motto, a School Integration Fight Turns Bitter, N.Y. Times (Nov. 12, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/12/us/howard-county-school-redistricting.html (discussing perspective of high school students on redistricting).

Community stakeholders and protestors are also concerned with longer commutes both to and from school as a result of the Plan and argue that the redistricting process will have several negative impacts.  Id.   For example, they argue that students will have less time to sleep and complete homework, that students will be forced to sever friendships formed with classmates in previous years, and that “[l]ow-income parents with inflexible jobs would be hit the hardest and would  not be able to get involved in their children’s schools.”  Id.

IV.  The Board’s Decision and Community Opposition

Even with strong resistance to the Plan, the Board voted in favor of adjusting the attendance areas for the 2020–2021 academic year.  Howard Cty. Pub. Sch. Sys., Planning the HCPSS School Attendance Areas, HCPSS, https://www.hcpss.org/school-planning/ (last visited Dec. 20, 2019).  The total number of individuals expected to move schools based on the Plan includes approximately 5,400 students.  Jess Nocera, Howard School Board Gives OK to Redistricting Plan That Addresses Overcrowding, Balances Poverty Levels, Balt. Sun (Nov. 21, 2019, 10:04 PM) [hereinafter Board Gives OK to Redistricting Plan], https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/howard/cng-ho-final-redistricting-vote-howard-1121-20191122-w5s7rcegw5hdpfmpkx66kwqvzy-story.html.  That estimate includes 2,827 elementary, 568 middle, and 2,007 high school students.  Id.  However, these numbers will likely change based on exemptions that were approved for specific sections of the student population, such as rising juniors and seniors, as well as fifth and eighth graders.  Id. 

Some community stakeholders continue to challenge the Plan; for example, an action for an injunction has already been filed in the Howard County Circuit Court.  Jess Nocera, Howard Parent Files Redistricting Injunction; School Board Adds Ratification of Vote to Agenda, Balt. Sun (Dec. 12, 2019, 6:45 PM), https://www.baltimoresun.com/maryland/howard/cng-ho-redistricting-injunction-1212-20191212-bl3ifnej5reelpuwgvwz5ulsv4-story.html.  In addition, the Howard County Families for Education Improvement has already spoken out against the redistricting process and encourages others to consider possible legal avenues to oppose the Plan.  See Howard Cty. Families for Educ. Improvement, FEI Statement 11.24.2019, HoCo-FEI.com, https://hoco-fei.com/fei-statement-11-24-2019 (last visited Dec. 20, 2019).  While the decision is final, it is apparent that a significant number of individuals are either unhappy or unwilling to accept the decision rendered.  Id.  Therefore, this contentious issue should continue to develop as the beginning of the 2020–2021 school year rapidly approaches.

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