School board considers alternatives to redistricting

Feb. 20, 2014 @ 02:18 PM

Grandfathering sitting students without transportation, restructuring schools in high-growth clusters and grandfathering students in certain grades were among the idea discussed Tuesday night at a school board work session. 

"Lord, what a mess. Wow. Wow," Superintendent Mary Ellis said before presenting the board with information they had requested for options. 

Ellis first presented the cons to redistricting. She said she did not get to present them at the last work session. 

One of the negative aspects was an extra transition for kids.

"It is an extra transition for children and the fewer transitions a child has, in research, the better the child performs," she said. "Now, we know that sometimes parents have to move because of work or whatever, but as best we can, the fewer transitions for children, the better they are."

She said parents were also concerned about an impact on property values and that some families "chose" their homes to be in a certain school.

"I'm a mom and I think that's very valid," Ellis said. "That we as parents tend to spend whatever money is within our purview whether it be more or less to do what we think is right for our children."

It may split some larger developments, could result in longer travel distances and they may need to transition some staff to other schools. 

"I can't say enough how...possibly devastating this can be to some children," Ellis said. "Children are really resilient in most cases, but I don't dare speak for any child out there about the way they feel about their (teacher) and I want to go on record that a reassignment is going to be an uprooting of children and that's the business we're in is the children business."

Ellis and Mike Webb, deputy superintendent of instructional technology and operations, presented options for grandfathering students. 

Board members had asked about potentially grandfathering rising juniors, eighth graders, fifth graders or even every child that is currently sitting in school. 

Webb said their assumption was that they were providing transportation and that every student would opt-in or take the bus. 

To grandfather and transport rising fifth graders, the school system would have to purchase nine buses for about $738,000 and the operations cost would be $334,583 for a total of about $1.1 million. 

To grandfather and transport rising eighth graders, the school system would have to purchase 12 buses for about $984,000 and the operations cost would be $503,552 for a total of about $1.5 million. 

"Now I will tell you that that's the worst-case, assuming everybody rides the bus," Webb said. "Also, that if you grandfather both fifth and eighth graders those costs should come down some because the fifth and eighth could ride the same buses possibly."

If the board decides to grandfather 11th grade students, transporting them would require purchasing eight buses at $656,000 and operations would be $576,206 for a total of about $1.2 million. 

If they grandfathered 12th grade students, they would have to purchase ten buses for $820,000 and operations would cost $288,103 for a total of about $1.1 million.

The transportation cost for grandfathering 10th grade students was about $1.9 million, with 13 buses costing about $1 million and operations costing $864,318.

The projections were for grandfathered students only.

Board member John Collins asked what would happen if they did not offer transportation to grandfathered students and how it could impact efficiency. 

Webb said that any time you deviate from the transportation maps, then it goes away from the efficiency formula. Ellis said that the routes must be turned in at the beginning of the school year.

Shelton Jefferies, assistant superintendent for auxiliary services, said "Once those routes are established, adding additional buses decreases our efficiency rate."

UCPS Chairman Richard Yercheck said that if they do it as part of a new year, the maps are already adjusted. 

Funding from the state is provided to the districts based on their efficiency, including how many children are on the bus, making sure the routes are efficient and you do not have multiple buses crossing paths. 

"Once you drop below 93 percent efficiency, then that begins to impact your funding and the state starts pulling back those dollars," Webb said. 

Collins asked if there was a legal requirement to provide transportation for grandfathered students. Legal counsel said no.

Webb said that if they grandfather the rising fifth grade students, they are not in the "watch" area for any of the elementary schools, "so it is very doable for us to grandfather the rising fifth graders."

Ellis noted that in the past, when they were building schools and redistricting, there was a precedent for grandfathering rising fifth graders. She did not think they provided transportation and any parent who wished for their child to be grandfathered had to provide transportation.

If the board grandfathered rising eighth-grade students, it would move Porter Ridge Middle School into the "watch" zone. 

"This concerns me," Webb said. "None of us have a crystal ball and I will tell you, it could very well go above the 1400 and you would have to cap the school." 

Ellis noted that the cap would only be for that year because the matriculated students would be lower if they grandfathered the eighth grade students.

If they grandfathered rising juniors, no one moved into the watch area. The plan already includes rising seniors.

"If we grandfather the rising juniors, we're ok," Webb said.

Webb also looked at grandfathering current ninth and 10th graders.

"Doable and it actually helps us in years (2015-2016) and (2016-2017) in the forecast, so again very doable for the board to grandfather sitting ninth graders, sitting 10th graders and sitting 11th graders," Webb said.

Grandfathering sitting kindergarten students through fourth grade would lead to some issues, Webb said, particularly at Kensington and New Town Elementary Schools. 

Grandfathering sitting sixth and seventh grade students would leave two schools in the capped area, Marvin Ridge Middle School would stay capped and Porter Ridge would have to be capped, Webb said.

The projected numbers are assuming that every current student opts to grandfather in.

Collins asked how many students accepted grandfathering in the past and Ellis said that it runs the gamut. In some schools around 60 percent of students opt in and in others about 25 percent of students opt to grandfather. Ellis said she would be surprised if there was a 100 percent opt-in rate. 

School board member Marce Savage asked about the possibility of reconfiguring the schools in the larger clusters, to make them kindergarten through second grade, third through fourth grade, fifth through sixth grade and seventh through eighth grade. 

Ellis said they would have to check their policy, but it would impact every student in the cluster as some may have to move schools if they  

"But it keeps everyone in their home cluster," Savage said. 

Savage said it was a "thorn in my side" and that she was sure people would be split up, but be able to stay in their home cluster. She said that the shift keeps happening because of three clusters, so why not "rearrange the dishes" in those clusters. 

Ellis said they will look at that if the board wants them to. 

"We've got more people moving, we've got to be prepared for the people coming in," Yercheck said. Savage said she understood that, but it was unfair for the person who has lived there for many years to have to change schools for people who do not live here yet. 

Board member Sherry Hodges said the point is to minimize the kids moving around the system and that people outside of the high-growth areas do not see the growth and do not understand the reassignment. 

"(It is) a wonderful issue to have that no one wants to leave," Hodges said. "I know there is no way" to make everyone happy, she added. 

Hodges said that anything will cost money, so they should look into all options. 

"I think we still have work to do," Hodges said. She said she does not want them to fall back on redistricting every few years. 

Yercheck said Savage has the "ideal" painting. 

"I love that idea," he said, referencing every student staying in their home cluster. He said that his family started in the Monroe cluster, then went to Porter Ridge, then Piedmont and would be moved back to Monroe under the current proposal. 

He said the board represented 42,000 children and 210,000 taxpayers. 

"I appreciate the ideal. I love that concept. Now I've got to get to reality," he said. 

Yercheck said they were a reactionary board and as long as municipalities were going to hand out building permits and the county hand out water and sewer permits, they would have to react to what they do. 

"Developers are like crack to those people," he said. "We're dealing with an issue they've created."

Board member Kevin Stewart was "intrigued" by the idea of grandfathering students. He said if they could grandfather all siting students, without transportation, it looked like they would stay well within their bounds and create longevity for sitting students. 

Webb's best guess was that caps from grandfathering would probably be for one year. 

Stewart wanted staff to look into grandfathering current students without transportation.

"I would like to see us, since the county commissioners have been making overtures that they're going to fund schools and be supportive, as we look at our budget I'd like to direct Dr. Ellis and the central staff to develop a strategic plan that takes into consideration both growth and equitable construction," Stewart said. 

He said it should take into account the need for repairs and renovations since the 2008 study and should be presented to the facilities committee then the full board.

He also said he would like parents and other stakeholders to provide input on the needs of the schools, whether they need repairs, new wings if needed, new buildings if needed and other repairs.

"I think this is an opportunity to let students perhaps stay in their cluster if they so choose to, I think it addresses the potential for future growth and I think this is a chance for us to call the county commissioners on their word and see if they're actually interested in partnering with us to improve the Union County school system," Stewart said.

Stewart said it would address growth in some areas and schools in other areas that have been neglected. He added that it provides them some breathing room and if they're going to "swing a big stick."

Stewart also asked if they can look at the areas in the current reassignment proposal that only impact small numbers of students, to see if they can clean any of the small niches as part of the process. 

When asked about the presentations and suggestions made by parents, Ellis said they have read them and looked into some of them. They are preparing a response to the Croal-Dude report that was presented to the commissioners. She said she applauded the parents for putting things like this together, but the report made some false assumptions and they are not castigating anyone. 

"We've read them and looked at them," Ellis said. "We've read every e-mail."

Ellis told the board that because they are a small staff, if they determine a plan later than April, she did not think the staff would be able to implement it by the next school year. 

The board decided to table scheduling the public comments until they could hear from the staff on the options discussed Tuesday night. There will be another work session in the future. 

Sheri Lamont, a mother of two who lives in Weddington, said that she was glad that some of the other options were discussed but "disappointed" that some of the options given by parents were not discussed. 

She said that grandfathering students and re-drawing the lines puts parents at a disadvantage if they want to sell their homes. 

"(We) need to look at the future," Lamont said. "For me...I want all kids to be able to primarily stay in their schools."

She said they need to structure schools to accommodate some flexibility in the schools and that in Weddington, they are not sure why they need to move students out of schools that are fine to free up space in another cluster. 

She said she was particularly surprised by one board member who seemed "like a different person."

Lamont said she liked that she saw some options being posed, but there are more options on the table that the board is aware of.