As 2002 came to a close, the Howard County school board found itself back where it started: in the hot seat.
Last January, the sore point was high school boundary lines. By fall, it was closed meetings. In winter, board relations -- with one another and with the public -- had turned frosty.
But this is a new year, with a new member and a new chairman. And improving communication ranks high on the board's list of New Year's resolutions.
"We have some relationships that need to be substantially improved," board member James P. O'Donnell said. "I think it's the board's responsibility to dispel . . . confusion and to repair those relationships and proceed in a way that doesn't create discord."
The board plans to go on a retreat soon. Newest member Courtney Watson said she wants to start a board listserv -- or e-mail forum -- for parents. Member Patricia S. Gordon said she would like to meet with the PTA Council of Howard County more frequently.
Those efforts come after a tumultuous year for the board.
Last year's redistricting to fill the new Reservoir High School marked the first time parents could comment on boundary lines after the board's work sessions. That prompted a new level of public scrutiny. New lines were also drawn over the summer to relieve crowding at Pointer's Run Elementary School, where enrollment reached about 1,000 students. And then in the fall came comprehensive redistricting for elementary and middle schools.
Each time, parents testified at board meetings in droves, loathe to see their children uprooted and neighborhoods split. They complained that despite the new procedures, they were being left out of the decision-making process, that their voices went unheard.
That was the same refrain that resounded after the board decided in closed session to promise to extend Superintendent John O'Rourke's contract. Parents, along with board member Virginia W. Charles, protested that they had not gotten a chance to comment.
And the controversies are trickling into the new year.
A public hearing on clarifications to the language of the elementary and middle school boundary lines is scheduled for next Thursday. Two parents have filed appeals with the state Department of Education regarding the changes at Stevens Forest, Jeffers Hill and Talbott Springs elementary schools.
Meanwhile, a lawsuit brought by Ellicott City resident Allen Dyer almost two years ago over closed board meetings has yet to be resolved. And the PTA Council has asked the state Open Meetings Compliance Board to review the board's closed meetings in 2002.
"I think this is a very involved public right now," said Deborah Wessner, president of the PTA Council.
But although improving communication may be the board's ultimate goal, one of its most pressing problems is the budget.
At next Thursday's meeting, the board will dive into the superintendent's proposed operating budget for fiscal 2004, which covers everything from teacher salaries to new textbooks. The hot items this year are likely to include shoring up the salaries of education support personnel, such as instructional aides, and planning for the move to full-day kindergarten.
"Almost certainly we won't have enough money to fully fund it," Watson said.
And there's still the capital budget to contend with. At $86.3 million, it's the largest the board has ever approved and includes money for the county's 12th high school and three new elementary schools.
County officials are anticipating that money for schools from the state will be extremely tight, with Maryland facing a $1.2 billion shortfall. "We're going to have very little wiggle room," Gordon said.