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Citizens must speak up for themselves

December 09, 2007|By Donna Brightman

The most recent round of attendance zone realignment - affectionately known as "redistricting"- has been in effect in Washington County since last December. That's when the Facilities and Enrollment Advisory Committee (FEAC) received its charge from the Board of Education to prepare recommendations regarding attendance areas for three new schools and develop proposals to relieve overcrowding at nearby schools.

My individual opinions and statements regarding specific redistricting recommendations are a matter of public record. In this space, however, I will comment on an important part of that process: citizen participation.

First, I applaud the objective, persistent and intelligent advocacy that citizens presented during all the FEAC public hearings, as well as, the subsequent Board of Education public hearing and other sessions involving opportunities for citizens to participate. We witnessed democracy in action. When citizens stand up and speak to power, they can demand a change from the status quo. Kudos to all of you who participated through e-mails, phone calls, words and deed.

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Unfortunately, by the time a county school system arrives at the critical point requiring redistricting, it is often too late to reverse course. Rockland, Maugansville and Pangborn elementary schools are already under construction.

Most of our elementary schools are at or over capacity, as are many of our middle and high schools. Additional development proposals are in the pipeline waiting for a housing market recovery that could further impact our schools.

Decisions are made by those in the room, and in the absence of alternative perspectives from active, consistent citizen participation, those decisions may not be the best ones.

In recent years, the County Commissioners and municipalities have dealt with comprehensive plans, the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, Excise Tax, rural and urban zoning densities, developer mitigation and all other various land-use techniques used by our local government.

Where were the citizens - demanding to be heard - when the county government was hammering out these land-use policies?

Why weren't those public hearings filled to overflowing with citizen involvement? That was the time for visionary planning and collaboration among all the stakeholders. With proper planning, "redistricting" could be eliminated from our lexicon.

My request to all the hundreds of parents and community activists who found time to address the redistricting issues over the last year: don't disappear.

Stay tuned in, stay informed and stay involved at every level of the government process from your school to the Board of Education to the County Commissioners to the state delegation.

The Washington County public school system has:

· Total student enrollment in 2007 of 21,692 students.

· 46 school buildings, with an average age of 44 years.

· 17 of our 26 elementary schools are over state rated capacity.

· $49 million in deferred maintenance.

· Recent redistricting resulted in 1,178 students being relocated.

· A budget of $277,382,847 for FY 2008.

If you aren't paying attention, someone else will.

Donna Brightman

Washington County Board of Education Member

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