BEL AIR — The Harford County Public Schools (HCPS) Board of Education began a process of balancing school enrollment which could include re-mapping zones for schools in the district at its final meeting of the semester on Dec. 21.
Several schools in the district are facing capacity issues, with growing population centers raising concerns that the strain on certain schools will only increase with time. To address these concerns, the district contracted FLO Analytics, a consulting company which will assess the district’s use of facilities and recommend solutions for balancing enrollment.
Kate Doiron, a senior Geographic Information Systems analyst at FLO Analytics, explained that she has worked with Brown and his team through the fall to collect the data for their springboard proposal, identifying where plans for future residential development will likely create shifting population centers across the county.
“We know that there is increasing enrollment over time and even predicted into the future, with projects in enrollment going out to 2026,” she said. “When you start looking to 2026, you can see that there’s even more elementary schools that are over the recommended capacity.”
In addition to new neighborhood development and the county’s organic growth, she identified other factors which will likely further stretch HCPS capacity — increased preschool enrollment and special education, for example.
She explained that they have to be careful not to overestimate population growth and falsely swell enrollment projections. However, they have been in touch with the county planning department to identify likely developments that might shift the county’s student population.
By the end of the current school year, FLO Analytics will present recommendations which could include re-drawing the zones for HCPS schools and even establishing one or more new school facilities. Doiron and her team are preparing for the second phase of their process, which will involve convening advisory team meetings and soliciting feedback from students, parents and other community stakeholders to develop a springboard proposal
“This, again, involves a lot of input from a lot of different parties,” Doiron said. “It’s not just us figuring out a solution. It’s everyone figuring out a solution.”
Doiron introduced Ingrid Boucher of Bloom Planning, another consulting firm that will focus specifically on community engagement underpinning the development of recommendations from FLO Analytics.
Boucher presented guiding principles of Bloom’s approach for discussion from board members.
The principles include implementing a transparent review process, maintaining neighborhood schools which prioritize proximity, accounting for the boundaries of existing and planned community developments, limiting bus transportation time and optimizing operational efficiency to maximize the district’s resources.
“Our guiding principles are the set of values that guide research, thinking and decision-making in this complex and multifaceted process,” Boucher said. “They are based on existing board policies, best practices and also district values regarding boundary changes.”
She explained that in addition to interviews with district leadership, many of which have already been conducted, they will seek to survey parents by phone, maintain regular online communication and establish two open community forums for stakeholders to make their voices and opinions known.
Outlining a broad timeline, Doiron expects to present recommendations to the board for approval in the fall of 2021, setting the district up to begin implementation in the spring of 2022.
Board member Sonja Karwacki asked whether the assessment would account for student safety with regard to the physical conditions of the buildings.
Assistant Superintendent of Operations Cornell Brown explained that an additional state-mandated assessment of facility safety is underway. The timing of these two assessments would likely help the district implement a more holistic enrollment balancing strategy, he said.
“Next year, what we’ll have is recommendations to make adjustments to our attendance areas, and we’ll have data on from the state assessment that will speak to the physical condition of buildings,” he said. “With the two assessments combined, we will be reassessing our capital program to make any recommendations to the superintendent.”
David Bauer, another board member, opened a central question of discussion — would plans to re-map the zones for HCPS schools start with the existing map and make small adjustments, or would an entirely new map be drawn up.
Bauer acknowledged that communities throughout the county have strong preferences for both options, and said he favors starting fresh.
“I don’t know what all inputs went into boundary conditions in the past — what historical artifacts may be there,” he said. “However, it is something that I recognize there’s going to be very strong opinions once people start seeing the outputs.”
Karwacki, however, disagreed.
“There needs to be consideration taken before we move students from one school to another,” she said. “I know that the prevailing thought would be most of our students like the schools that they’re in, and so the least disruption would be the best route.”
Doiron explained that they typically start with the existing boundaries and work from there, but she acknowledged that ongoing work with the district leadership and community engagement could bring to light factors that shift the map.
“We’ll generally start with your existing boundaries,” she said. “But anything can be moved around while we’re trying to figure out this puzzle of making sure none of the schools are over capacity.”
Board members including Tamera Rush and Vice President Rachel Gauthier indicated that limiting the time students spend on the bus each day are top priorities.
“Speaking as somebody whose kids are already on the bus — well, not this year — for well over 45 minutes, I certainly appreciate that we have that thread in there,” Rush said.
“We don’t want kids on the bus forever in a day,” Gauthier added. “We are going to come out of this COVID nightmare at some point, and we’re going to put kids back on buses, and we need to make sure that they’re not on the bus for an hour.”
After hearing the preliminary discussion, Board President Janson Robinson called a vote to approve Bloom’s guiding principles, which passed unanimously, clearing the way for the district to begin working with FLO and Bloom on the next phase of the assessment process.
Gauthier thanked the teams at FLO and Bloom for their work, as well as the district leadership, and emphasized that the best interests of HCPS students must remain at the heart of the work.
“This is not going to be an easy process,” she said. “We really are all on the same team, and we want what’s best for everybody.”