In one part of Baltimore County, elementary students are getting four new schools to make room for more kids, while 3- and 4-year-olds are losing their early learning center. In another area, parents have begged for relief for their students who are packed tight inside overcrowded schools.

The solution? Redraw the elementary school boundaries.

It’s a practice that’s become incredibly common in a district where the student population growth outpaces the construction of new school buildings. There have been five boundary studies in the last two years. Right now, there are two wrapping up simultaneously.

In March, board members will vote to approve maps created by teachers, principals and parents in the central and northwest areas that will determine the schools students will attend based on where they live. Here’s what to know about the redistricting process:

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What’s the difference between the two boundary studies?

In Baltimore County Public Schools’ central area — a region that extends from Towson to Jacksonville and includes 19 elementary schools — the goal is to make classrooms less crowded. It was projected last year that four elementary schools — Timonium, Carroll Manor, Pine Grove and Hampton — would be overcrowded this year. The school system decided to redistribute 9,000 students at 15 other schools. It’s the largest redistricting the system has ever done.

In the northwest area — which includes parts of Windsor Mill, Pikesville and Owings Mills — the system is replacing four elementary schools. The new buildings will add 1,200 slots for students, and redistributing students among them will help relieve overcrowding at three of the six elementary schools getting new boundaries.

The northwest boundary study will also shepherd the closing of Campfield Early Learning Center, a Title I school focusing on young learners with a significant special education population. Three- and 4-year-olds in Campfield’s early childhood program will return to the school buildings they are zoned for.

Why are so many schools overcrowded?

Overcrowded schools have been a recurring issue in Baltimore County. At the start of 2022, parents and students from Hampton Elementary pleaded at school board meetings for the system to make their schools less crowded. In response, the system started an emergency relief boundary study in late May that involved only three schools. Parents at the time said there were no options that would have solved the problem for Hampton, and the redistricting process was never completed.

Julie Culotta, Hampton’s PTA president, said Hampton’s lines were redrawn before in 2020. It was approved around the time schools shut down because of COVID-19.

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“It went through, but we didn’t feel it until almost two years later because kids were virtual for so long,” she said.

The school can only hold 662 students, but as of Sept. 30, 2023, 734 students are crammed inside classrooms and four trailers. That’s about 160 more students since 2019, according to state data.

Culotta said the crowdedness made for a “rough” experience for students and teachers. They knew neighboring schools like West Towson, Jacksonville and Mays Chapel had room for more kids and urged the system to consider all the central area elementary schools, instead of two or three.

The frequency in redistricting can be linked to the frequency of new housing developments in the district. A new apartment complex, for instance, could add dozens of kids to the nearby school. Before the pandemic, enrollment in the public schools jumped by 1,000 children or more almost ever year for at least a decade. New schools weren’t being built at the same pace new kids moved into the districts, leading to an overflow of students in many school buildings.

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In the northwest region, Scotts Branch and Milbrook elementary schools, as well as Wellwood International School, exceed what the county considers overcrowded, i.e., utilizing 115% or more of the building. Scotts Branch is at 120% utilization, Milbrook is at 149% utilization and Wellwood is at 160%.

How have the boundary studies gone so far?

The process in the central region started in September with a committee of 78 parents, teachers and principals who analyzed, edited and voted on multiple maps. There were information sessions so others in the community could weigh in and an online survey that garnered 1,300 comments. Commenters often cited transportation and walking distance as reasons for supporting a particular map. For the maps they rejected, reasons often included failure to address long-term enrollment or overcrowding.

At a Jan. 4 meeting, the committee considered seven maps. Under the map they selected, Timonium Elementary’s enrollment will stay the same, Carroll Manor will be over capacity by seven students, Hampton will have room for 79 more students and Pine Grove will have room for six.

Committee member Shamara Murphy, PTA president of Pleasant Plains, said the process started out “heated,” but she’s glad they made progress. Some of the obstacles she noted were the possibilities of splitting up communities and extending students’ commutes.

“There is no easy way to do boundary studies, whether you’re drawing new legislative districts, or whether you’re drawing new school districts, and a lot of people think first about how it affects their own family,” said Del. Cathi Forbes, a Democrat who represents Baltimore County residents and who served on a boundary study committee in 2009.

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For the northwest schools, over 90% of voters picked the same map after months of deliberating. It gives capacity relief to Milbrook and Wellwood; however, Scotts Branch remains the same. The school is expected to be part of yet another boundary study in the fall.

Angel Vosburgh St Pierre said Wednesday that she was happy with the selection. She thought the decision aligned with the school system’s priorities for redistricting — efficiently using the school capacity and maintaining or increasing the diversity. It moves her three kids from Milbrook Elementary to Summit Park, which she was fine with. But others weren’t.

“They were very unwelcoming,” she said about comments made by Summit Park parents. “I think that it’s very unfortunate that people would be so hateful towards children coming to a school in their community and make assumptions about children that they don’t know.”

The public could anonymously share their thoughts on the map options in an online survey. For the map the committee selected, one Summit Park parent commented, “Milbrook is known to be a really rough school with lots of bullying, mean kids, fights. This would for sure make Summit Park a worse learning environment.”

Another wrote, “This drastically increases the amount of FARMs [free and reduced meals] and low socioeconomic students at Summit Park. This is extremely unfair to the families of current Summit Park students and everyone who owns a home in the Summit Park district.”

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The board held a hearing for the northwest study Wednesday at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School. Only one speaker signed up: Maxine Rubin, vice president of the Williamsburg Community Association, which surrounds Bedford Elementary. She said the school system should have considered the influx of children she expects will move in around Gwynnvale and Idylwood roads after the older residents move out.

The meeting ended quickly after that with some audience members confused or unsatisfied by the process, said community member Laura Benson.

“I think we were under the impression that not only will there be mutual conversation back and forth, but we get a better idea of how these votes are really happening,” she said.

Board members explained that they were only there to listen and ensured they take the public’s opinion into account before approving a map.

What’s next?

The central area map will be presented to the board Feb. 27. Then a public hearing on the map will take place March 6. The vote to approve the map happens March 19.

The northwest map will be voted on March 5.

The new boundaries for both areas will go into effect next school year.

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