Virginia is halfway through a whirlwind legislative session. How are new laws going to change the lives of Virginians? And Montgomery County Public Schools are taking the first steps toward redistricting, making some parents and students hopeful and others angry. How might the process end?
Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
In November, the Howard County Council will vote on an expansive school redistricting proposal. The plan would affecting all of the county’s 77 schools and reassign almost 7,400 students, while paving the way for a 13th high school to be built.
Tensions have flared as residents, both for and against the plan, publicly voice their opinions. Each public hearing on the topic has been several hours long.
Kojo sits down with Jess Nocera, a reporter covering education for the Howard County Times, to discuss what families and educators can expect in the coming month.
Produced by Laura Spitalniak
- Jess Nocera Reporter for the Howard County Times; @jessmnocera
SASHA-ANN SIMONSYou're tuned into The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. Later in the hour we'll sit down with the Washington Spirit to discuss their tremendous season and the World Cup effect. But first Howard County is considering a proposal to redistrict its public schools. The redistricting would reassign nearly 7400 students who attend public schools in the county. And it's sparked contentious rhetoric that has divided the community. Joining me to discuss is Jess Nocera. Jess is a reporter with the Howard County Times. Hi, Jess. Thank you so much for joining us today.
JESS NOCERAHi. Thanks for having me.
SIMONSNow, you have covered the redistricting process for the Howard County Times and you and your colleagues have done a great job over the last few months, of course, trying to get a handle of this and get us all up to speed as to what's going on in Howard Country, but it's been a lot. And I've been trying to follow the bouncing ball myself. So why don't we just take it back to the very beginning and have you start there. Tell us, why did the school superintendent propose this redistricting plan and why is it even necessary?
NOCERASure. So back in January the school board unanimously voted to have the Howard School Superintendent, Michael Martirano, begin the process of hiring a consultant and to begin to look at the process of redistricting. This was necessary -- the school board felt this was necessary as did the superintendent and other school system officials due to overcrowding at a lot of schools. And that's pretty much what got the process started. And then in June when the annual feasibility study came out that for the next 10 years kind of showcases how many students the county is expecting across all grade levels to come in every year, kicked off the process. And then he introduced his plan in August. And since then the school board had several public hearings where they heard from hundreds and hundreds of community members, parents, students. A lot of students testified.
NOCERAAnd, you know, gave their concerns or gave their support to the plan. And last week the school board had their first work session because the school board is the only one that can actually vote on the final plan.
NOCERAAnd they will vote on the plan on November 21. That's when they're scheduled to vote on it.
NOCERAAnd so now they're done with public hearings. People are still able to submit written testimony until November 19. And until then they're having a series of work sessions. And they had one last week and already voted to not redistrict rising juniors.
SIMONSSo -- but leading up to this point as you mentioned a lot of parents, a lot of students speaking out. You know, some of your coverage has talked about, you know, the lineups of folks there and just different concerns that they've addressed. So give us an idea of what they're saying. Like what are the concerns that you're specifically hearing from parents and what are the students saying? Because I know even some students, who aren't going to be affected by the redistricting have spoken out as well, right?
NOCERAYes. One of the hearings I went to, a student who's a senior testified and spoke really just about school community and not really wanting to. They're like, I know I'm not -- it won't affect me, but if I had been here I wouldn't have wanted it to happen. Some other students actually expressed concerns about moving rising juniors to a different school. And at the time the school board hadn't voted yet to not do that. And the reason why they brought up that concern was about college recommendation letters, and not being able to have teachers that they've for a few years write one, which was an interesting point.
NOCERASome other students are just concerned about afterschool activities and if you bring in new students to the school. For one student who spoke from Appleton High School where nearly over 600 of their students are being proposed to move to other high schools. And that one student was concerned that all these students are leaving, how can we get enough students that move in to then take up all their spots in extracurriculars and make sure we can still offer all the same programs. Parents have been -- a lot of concerns from parents are about busing their children farther away, sleep time. Now my student has to be bused longer. How this affects their sleep, is a lot from parents.
SIMONSBut the busing is something that will be taken care of, right? Because I know there's a transportation budget that's being worked into this as well.
NOCERAYes. Yes. All students will still be provided transportation to school. It's just some parents are concerned that their child will be spending a longer time on the bus than normal or some students that have never taken bus, if they've been a walker to their current school could potentially now be on a school bus to a different school.
SIMONSAnd on that same token of parent concerns, I'm looking at a comment on our website from Vivica. She says, I'm a concerned parent. My child under the current plan is being redistricted to the eighth closest high school to our home, Wild Lake. It takes 20 to 25 minutes to drive there depending on the traffic lights in a car. Imagine the commute in a school bus. There is no safe way to travel to the school except using big roads such as 32 and 29. The traffic is terrible on these roads and they are very dangerous for new drivers. Is that sort of sounding like what you've been hearing?
NOCERAYes, I've been hearing that a lot. A lot of people, parents, saying that it seems like their children will be on a bus for about 40 to 45 minutes.
NOCERAI myself have not done the math, but that's what they're all saying.
SIMONSNow, last week the board did decide that rising juniors would not be redistricted next school year. Is this going to help? Do you think it will address some of their concerns?
NOCERAWell, I think it will address a lot of students concerns that are probably more concerned about that, because rising seniors already were not being redistricted. Like so which ever high school you start out in you will get to graduate from there.
SIMONSOkay. So now they've added rising juniors to that.
NOCERAYes. So now all rising -- so now basically all juniors and seniors beginning next year will not be moved from the 12 high schools. So it does take away obviously moving some other kids, but if they're able to still address overcrowding problems it would still address some solutions.
SIMONSYeah. Now what about community leaders? Are community leaders outside of the Board of Education weighing in and what are you hearing from other political figures in Howard County?
NOCERAYes. A lot actually have weighed in. Howard County Executive Calvin Ball just had made one brief statement earlier in September just basically reiterating how only the school board has voting power. But also that he is just looking forward to a thoughtful and comprehensive process. The Howard County Council has weighed in. Three members back in August had proposed -- introduced about the school system creating a multiyear integration plan to begin to integrate schools, which was passed last month. But it's a resolution so it's not law. It's just more of something that they would like to see happen. And the Council Chair, Christiana Mercer Rigby, had said that she just hopes that this will create a meaningful conversation around integration. The Howard County delegation, which is made up of three senators and delegates, some of them have begun to make statements.
NOCERAThe three senators did last week, Senator Clarence Lam, Guy Guzzone and Katie Fry Hester basically saying that they are not endorsing any plan, but that they just have an ongoing interest as elected officials. And then two days later I believe, District 12, which is Senator Lam and then Delegates Eric Ebersole, Terri Hill and Jessica Feldmark made an additional statement and they were basically encouraging the school board to balance out the three priorities that are in the superintendent's proposal, which are address overcrowding, address poverty gaps and create the boundary lines for the new high school, which should open in 2023.
SIMONSSo everyone seems to be understanding the fact that, okay, we are not going to be the ones having the final say here. It is still up to the school board, but we just want to give our two cents and let everyone know where we stand. Do you think that will have a lot of influence?
NOCERAI mean, the school board hasn't really made any comments regarding everyone else making comments. But, I mean, for community members I've seen some of them be active in hearing what other elected officials have to say. And then even this morning Senator Lam, again, and two delegates, Delegate Eric Ebersole and Terri Hill had announced that they are filing four pieces of legislation ahead of the 2020 General Assembly session basically regarding different aspects of redistricting.
SIMONSGot you. Now, in another turn of events and this was highlighted by a recent article from Mother Jones. There was written testimony in responds to the resolution some of which used very racist language. How has the community responded to those letters?
NOCERAI have seen a lot of response to that and have even received emails myself. A lot of key members are saying that those letters are fake. And that they used fake addresses and fake names and stuff. I personally have not investigated myself at this time, but that is what I've been hearing mostly about that article.
SIMONSSo they're denying that these racist letters are real.
SIMONSSo have you seen any of that type of rhetoric like in person like at these meetings and protests?
NOCERANo. I haven't. There were protests outside of all the public hearings and the public hearings obviously inside, but, no. No one really -- that I witnessed did not have any racist language in their testimony.
SIMONSOkay. And so I know you outlined sort of the next steps for us early on. But tell us again, like, is there further testimony expected? What can people still do at this time?
NOCERASo people can still submit written testimony so emails, letters to the school board. And they can do that up until two days before the school board is scheduled to approve a plan, which would be -- the school board is supposed to vote on November 21. Until then there's a series of work sessions and pretty much in those work sessions the school board will just begin to make motions and craft the final plan whether it's exactly what's on the table right now or not will be up to them.
SIMONSAnd you'll be on top of it, of course, and providing us that coverage that we'll be looking to see.
SIMONSThank you so much. Jess Nocera is a reporter for the Howard County Times covering education, crime and the court systems. Thanks so much for being here, Jess.
SIMONSWe'll be back after a short break. Stay tuned.
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