The change comes because of housing trends, in which the recession cut off the previous decade's fast growth in western county schools. That left scores of seats empty in new school buildings as homebuyers concentrated on lower-priced townhouses and condominiums going up in the redeveloping eastern county, where thousands more new homes are expected.
"The goal is to try to use some of the seats in the west, in Dayton Oaks," where enrollment is only about 75 percent of capacity, said school board member Sandra French. Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, pointed out a concern shared by many parents over shifting students.
"Everybody's getting further and further away from where their [current] schools are," he said.
Gay Williams, a North Laurel parent who did not attend the meeting, later echoed that sentiment. Her 8-year-old daughter Lauren attends second grade at Laurel Woods Elementary, and Williams is worried about moving her.
"They had to add a fifth kindergarten class [at Laurel Woods] the first day of school," Williams said. There are three portable classrooms now and three more are being installed. Her son will begin at Reservoir High School in August, and she wants him in the community. "We know the community" and feel pride in being part of it, she said. Williams wants a new elementary school in her area sooner rather than later.
Joel Gallihue, manager of planning for county schools, told the council, meeting at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City, that the redistricting process Is just starting and will involve many summer meetings with affected parents before the school board votes on a plan around Thanksgiving.
"It can be messy. It can be a little bit tense," he told council members about the often emotional response from parents who learn their children may have to switch to schools that are farther from home.
Gallihue said residents should expect redistricting to affect students for the rest of the decade. Elementary school changes will take place in August 2012 and 2013, while middle schools will be realigned in 2015 when a new school is expected to open. Northeastern county high schools will see redistricting in 2016, and elementary schools will be shifted again in 2019 when a new building is planned.
No boundary changes are proposed for Elkridge, where the board hopes to open a new elementary school in two years. The school board scheduled a closed meeting Thursday evening to possibly decide on a site for a new elementary school in Elkridge, board members said. That decision could be revealed publicly at the June 21 board meeting.
"We are cautiously optimistic that we can open a new elementary school in August 2013," said school system capital budget chief Ken Roey. If the board approves a potential site, public hearings will be held before the land is purchased.
A new middle school to be built between Route 100 and Route 32 should open by 2015, relieving crowding along U.S. 1, though the board has no site for it yet. A second new elementary in North Laurel is being planned for 2019.
Gallihue said there will be a shortage of high school seats in the northeast too, but that should be relieved by a redistricting that will shift students from Howard High to Long Reach and Oakland Mills in Columbia. The 800 added seats needed by decade's end aren't enough to justify planning a new high school yet.
Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents Elkridge, urged the board to buy land for new schools as soon as possible, without waiting for a crowding emergency. Board member Frank Aquino agreed, as did schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin.
"I don't think it hurts to acquire a site," Watson said. "I'd like to see the school system really work to purchase sites. We haven't done that for a while." Aquino agreed, though open land is hard to come by in the more crowded eastern county, board member Allan Dyer said.
Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents North Laurel, pointed out that major development projects planned next to commuter train stations at Savage and North Laurel will bring 1,000 new housing units to the area in years to come. "We're already bursting at the seams at Gorman Crossing, Laurel Woods" and other area schools, she said.
In the meantime, school officials are starting a months-long redistricting process for the southeastern county that would shift children there westward from school to school, domino-style, until they reach empty seats at Pointers Run and Dayton Oaks elementary schools. No changes would occur in the northeast until the new school is built, though crowding would delay plans for new homes all along the U.S. 1 corridor until land is purchased and building plans are set.
According to maps in a board feasibility study, the first step in the process, Gallihue's staff suggests starting with students at Laurel Woods in the county's far southeastern corner. From there, children would be shifted to Forest Ridge, and then others from Forest Ridge to Bollman Bridge; from Bollman Bridge and Atholton to Guilford; from Guilford to Hammond and some back to Atholton; from Hammond to Fulton west of U.S. 29; from Fulton to Pointers Run in Clarksville, and also to Dayton Oaks in rural Dayton.
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, wanted assurances that crowding at Running Brook Elementary in central Columbia would not be allowed to hold up the start of work on the redevelopment of Columbia's downtown.
"I believe the council went ahead with the downtown Columbia plan to see things happen there. It would be unfortunate to see nothing happen," she said.
Gallihue said a 100-seat addition for 2014 might help at Running Brook, and the board still owns the vacant former Faulkner Ridge school, which would be used if needed. In east Columbia, Gallihue proposed building an addition at Phelps Luck Elementary and moving some students from crowded Talbott Springs to nearby Stevens Forest.