The result followed several months of contentious debate in a county that has long prided itself on its diversity — highlighting questions of race, class, student achievement, neighborhood bonds and the meaning of segregation.
The plan — estimated to move 5,400 students, roughly 1 in 10, for the 2020-2021 academic year — was not as far-reaching as supporters had hoped, and not as limited as opponents wanted.
Many students will face longer bus rides — an average of three extra miles round trip — in the high-performing 58,000-student school system, located in one of the nation’s most affluent counties.
“This is a compromise,” said board member Jennifer Mallo, pointing out that less was done to ease concentrations of poverty than once envisioned but that fewer students were reassigned in the end. She said she and others worked to benefit “as many students as we could.”
It represents the largest redistricting initiative in Howard’s history, officials said.
“It’s a first step, and the whole issue of looking at the socioeconomics of our schools and the opportunity gap is something we carry forward,” Mavis Ellis, chair of the school board, said in an interview.
But board member Christina Delmont-Small, who voted against the boundary revisions, said the effort was flawed and that neighborhoods were not given equal attention. Some students who live less than a mile from a school were shifted to schools miles away, she said, and some walkers were made into bus riders. Neighborhoods were divided, she said.
“The redistricting process is broken, and I believe we failed our students and our parents and our community,” she said. “We could have done better.”
Rising high school seniors will be exempt from the changes, and the board voted to exempt students who will be rising high school juniors, along with rising eighth-graders and rising fifth-graders.
Opposition to the changes has been intense since August, when Superintendent Michael Martirano unveiled a proposal that sought to better balance schools by poverty level as attendance zones were being shifted to accommodate enrollment growth.
Howard’s fast-growing student body is 36 percent white, 24 percent black, 22 percent Asian, 11 percent Hispanic and 6 percent multiracial.
But the percentage of students affected by poverty varies widely — as high as 68 percent at an elementary school in Columbia and less than 5 percent in more than a dozen schools, according to data released in August.
The goal was to bring more schools closer to the countywide average: 22.5 percent. To do that, Martirano’s plan would have moved nearly 7,400 students, with many facing longer bus rides and some headed to schools with lower test scores or lesser reputations.
Parents protested by the hundreds — outside school board hearings, near the Mall in Columbia, in letters and Facebook posts. Students spoke out, as did community leaders and elected officials. National media covered the turmoil, some of which was inflamed by overtly racist letters sent to county officials.
Since mid-September, the school system has held seven nights of public hearings and nine days of school board work sessions.
Though the board kept to Martirano’s goals, it ultimately did not pursue his plan, instead coming up with its own quiltwork of student moves and neighborhood reassignments.
Some of Howard’s 74 schools with larger percentages of students who receive free and reduced price meals, an indicator of poverty, will see a reduction in those numbers, with six schools expected to see declines of at least 10 points, according to data released Thursday.
But most schools will not see large shifts.
“It seems to be a compromise,” said Willie Flowers, president of the Howard County branch of the NAACP. “Nobody is happy on either side. Hopefully, there will be value for the students long-term, and I’m hopeful the school capacity issue will be minimized.”
Flowers and others said the discord of late has been at odds with how Howard sees itself. The county’s largest community, Columbia, was founded in the 1960s on principles of equality and integration, embracing residents of all races, incomes and religions.
“I was blindsided by what I have witnessed over the last couple of months,” said Flowers, a father of two who moved to Howard seven years ago and said the controversy pointed to fears that people harbor about those “they don’t understand and would rather observe from a distance.”
James Cecil, a parent who supported the superintendent’s proposal as a starting point and attended board work sessions on the issue, said he believed some progress was made — but not nearly enough. He called expected changes in poverty levels “pretty marginal.”
“It’s a completely missed opportunity that has now galvanized opposition to any redistricting at all, but especially any that would better balance the socioeconomic inequities within the county,” Cecil said.
“It’s created wounds that are going to take a very long time to heal,” he added.
After such divisiveness, some in Howard say the county needs to focus on coming together.
Howard County Executive Calvin Ball (D) issued a statement saying he shared concerns about the school board not reaching a stronger consensus and a lack of clarity in school system data.
Ball said he wished the process could have been less contentious but appreciated residents’ passion and involvement.
“It is now time for us to begin the healing process and start coming together as a county,” he said.
Hemant Sharma, a leader in Howard County Families for Education Improvement, which was formed shortly after the redistricting proposal was released, called the decision-making process rushed and noted questions about the data used as a basis for the plan.
“It really raises concerns about moving upward of 5,000 kids, and what the reasons are for doing that, and what the repercussions may be,” he said.
Sharma, a pediatrician and father of three, argued that the redistricting plan was not an effective way to address achievement gaps between affluent students and those from lower-income families.
“There is not anything in this plan that directly helps disadvantaged students,” Sharma said.
Summer Romack, a Columbia parent, said her daughter and other seventh-graders at Oakland Mills Middle School weighed in by video against plans to include their area in the rezoning. They talked about their connections to friends and teachers. They called their school a home.
“We hear that the reasons are to increase diversity and have families with different amounts of money, but our school already has that,” one student said in the video.
After the Thursday vote, the students were dismayed the rezoning prevailed — but were relieved that rising eighth-graders were exempted, Romack said.
Elsewhere in the country, integration plans based on race have led to legal challenges, said Erica Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University. But she said Friday that there is generally less basis for legal action when school boards pass redistricting plans or integration policies based on socioeconomics.
She called the board’s decision encouraging but said how the plan plays politically is an open question: “Will the boundaries be accepted,” she asked, “or will there be efforts to shift them again?”