Charles County school officials call it phase-in rezoning. Many Charles County parents are calling it forced busing, and they don't like it.
The two sides met last week for an emotionally charged public hearing on a proposal to redistribute Thomas Stone High School students among Stone and the other three high schools in the county over the next four years. It would mean busing students in two high schools.
Angry parents and students nearly filled the 675-seat La Plata High School auditorium. They told the seven-member school board what they dislike about the plan, which would go into effect next September if it is approved.
Charged parent Fred Benson: "In 1977, you knew there was a problem. You had four years to work on it and now you are asking all the parents to accept the same situation. You have failed us miserably."
Just about the only point that both parents and school officials agreed on was that the overcrowding at Thomas Stone High School, which the redistricting plan is designed to alleviate, is a direct result of the rapid growth of the planned town of St. Charles in the northwestern section of the county. The high school is about 3 miles east of the town.
A collection of five communities built on 8,000 acres, St. Charles now has about 13,000 residents, including about 3,600 school-age children. Most of the growth has occurred in the last 10 years, and the town's developers expect the population to reach 70,000 by the end of the century. That figure is equal to the current population of the entire county.
Many parents at the hearing blasted the county planning commission and the school board for failing to anticipate the growth by providing enough schools.
Eleanor Robey, a feisty, 77-year-old grandmother who heads the Parents Ad Hoc Committee, said, "The problems are the result of mushrooming student population in St. Charles. For years that growing problem has been brushed under the rug by the school administration and the board of education. Now the overcrowding has reached the point of impossibility."
Reading from a report prepared by her committee, Robey, who has two grandchildren attending county schools, said that "people from St. Charles do not want to be dominobused. . . . Such imposed busing disrupts the real purpose of effective schooling."
The report questioned the board's contention that no money is available to build a new school sooner than planned, or to make additions to Stone. It also accused county officials of "gross negligence and neglect of the very principles they were sworn to uphold, when they have allowed . . . the population of St. Charles to overcrowd Thomas Stone High School. . . ."
The hearing, at which only two persons spoke out in full support of the proposal, was the first and last chance for public comment before April 7, when the board will accept the plan as it is, suggest modifications and send it back to the Superintendent Jesse L. Starkey, or reject it.
Thomas Stone, built to accommodate 1,249 students, currently has an enrollment of 1,833. In addition, 394 Stone students are already being bused south to La Plata High School.
The present Thomas Stone attendance boundaries would be redrawn under the plan, which the school board says "minimizes the disruption to pupils and is considered . . . the least expensive of the alternatives." It would affect only incoming ninth graders during its first year and then expand by one grade each year. No student now in high school would have to move to another school.
During the first year this would mean the busing of 83 incoming ninth graders from the Carrington neighborhood of St. Charles to McDonough High School, about 10 miles to the southwest. In turn, 63 ninth graders from the present McDonough district would be bused 7 miles to Lackey High School in the western part of the county. The attendance boundaries of all high schools in the county would be redrawn, and all high school students moving into the county or relocating within the county would be placed according to the new zones.
At the start of the fourth year, all students would attend the schools indicated by the new zones, bringing the population at each high school to about 1,500 students at the beginning of the 1984-85 school year.
A variety of other proposals offered by individuals and school advisory councils were considered when school officials first took up the problem last November. All were rejected as being too expensive.
Cost comparisons published and distributed at the hearing were challenged by several parents.
James Walton, a Pentagon employe who did his own cost analyses of the various plans, pointed out that the $30,607 in "total costs" for the superintendent's plan covered only the first year. He charged that the final figure would be much higher, about $310,000.
Most parents, however, were more concerned with the effect of busing on their children and their communities than with costs.
Barbara Hurst argued that shifting students to schools far away from their homes would make participation in after-school activities more difficult.
"High school students are active almost daily (after) school," she said. "The teen-aged years are the hardest and we should make it easier, not harder, for them to be involved in school activities. We do not live in the city; our kids cannot catch a later bus."
Alan Penberg, president of the Southern Maryland Youth Organization, said his group "is against a proposal that can prove disruptive to the children, families and neighborhoods involved." He advocated reopening the former Waldorf elementary school, now used for adult classes, as an annex to Stone. "All costs are not measurable in dollars. The cost to the child is immeasurable," he said.
Citing the county's dramatic population increase over the last 10 years, Ken Worley, a father said, "A new high school must be built in north Charles. There is no alternative."
The 1980 census revealed a 52 percent increase in the Charles County population -- from 47,678 in 1970 to 72,751 last year.
In its fiscal 1981 budget, the school board asked the state for $17 million to build a fifth high school in the northern part of the county. If the state approves the funds, the county is to put up another $2 million to finance the construction. Site selection and plans for the new school have yet to be made, and construction is not scheduled to begin until 1984.
Many St. Charles residents are still bitter over a busing plan of several years ago, which transferred some of their children 10 miles away, to Malcolm Elementary School, because of a lack of schools in the new town.
St. Charles now has four elementary schools and one middle school.
Eleanor Robey's group asked the school board for a one-year delay on the redistricting plan, to allow time to investigate alternatives. She is confident the board will not approve the present plan. "I think it's too hot for them to handle," she said.