Redistricting anger flares

Jan. 28, 2014 @ 02:10 PM

Emotions continued to run high Thursday night at the Union County Board of Education work session on redistricting. 

Parents showed up en masse, many wearing T-shirts or buttons that opposed redistricting. The crowd filled the Monroe High School auditorium and spilled over into the gymnasium. 

Reaction, at times, was tense, with the audience booing or voicing their disappointment. One audience member yelled, “Suck it, cupcake” while Board member Kevin Stewart was speaking. This was a reference to a blog run by Stewart and, as was revealed in the funding trial, some county commissioners in 2012 prior to Stewart running for the school board. In the blog, the comment was directed at former school spokesperson Luan Ingram. 

Law enforcement attempted to escort the woman from the room, but she could not be identified. 

At times, the audience and applauded and gave a few standing ovations. 

Superintendent Mary Ellis and Deputy Superintendent of Instructional Technology and Operations Mike Webb presented the school board with options to ease overcrowding in the schools. 

The presentation introduced eight options in lieu of reassignment: multi-tracking, split track, kindergarten though sixth grade schools, building new schools, building additions to previous schools, increasing school choice, leaving the cap in place and adding mobile classrooms. 

“I was encouraged that they had options,” Josh Vire, of the Cuthbertson cluster, said after the meeting. He said the options were viable and there was some support on the board for slowing down the process. 

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Vire said he is in favor of any solution that keeps communities together. 

“They need to take their time and consider other options,” he said. 

Webb and Ellis presented the pros and cons to each option. 

“Any of them will work, with caveats,” Ellis said. “We have done a considerable amount of research” and can do more. 

Webb reviewed the methodology, saying they wanted to impact the fewest number of students, which elicited a laugh from the audience. He said they tried to focus on areas identified by the McKibben demographics forecast as having the most potential for growth and defended the accuracy of Jerome McKibben’s work as a demographer, saying his forecasts are within 2 percent nationwide and a quarter of a percent in UCPS. 

Webb said they did not bring McKibben back in 2010 to adjust because with the recession, they had a fair idea of what was happening with growth and it seemed like a waste of money. 

The plan also tried to stave off new school construction for five years and avoid a “butterfly effect” elsewhere in the district. 

The presentation Webb and Ellis gave can be found on the school’s website: ucps.k12.nc.us. 

One option was implementing a multi-track system at the elementary and middle schools. In that system, students would be put into groups and would operate on a year-round, rotating schedule. Ellis noted that if they go to multi-track, which they can do, it will impact every child in the school system. 

She said they will not need extra teachers, it will reduce the “summer slide,” remediation can be done during the intersession, off-track teachers can be substitutes during the intersession and it is beneficial to disadvantaged students. 

Some of the cons included an increase in maintenance and operations costs, scheduling issues for siblings in different tracks, a decreased “community” and issues with after-school and extracurricular activities. 

A split-track program, where some students come in the morning and some in the afternoon had similar advantages and disadvantages. One advantage was that they can vary schedules for virtual and customized learning. Some disadvantages were that it complicates the lunch schedule, requires double the lockers and could have the second shift of students going to school until 8 p.m. 

The options to build new schools, implement caps or build additions to schools received thunderous applause from the audience. 

According to the presentation, a new school would take about three years to build after the funding is secured. A new elementary school costs roughly $14 million, a new middle school costs about $25 million and a new high school costs around $42 million. 

If the district did not cap or reassign students, it would cost about $2.9 million, which includes the cost of 49 new mobile classrooms and about $236,635 to operate them. 

Capping schools would cost about $2 million, including increased transportation costs. A split-track schedule would be about $1.8 million, based on the Marvin cluster. A multi-track schedule would be about $702,557 a year, based on the Marvin cluster. An addition to an elementary school would be about $1.9 million and creating kindergarten through sixth grade schools would be about $1.2 million. 

“We can do anything on this so-called menu,” Webb told the board. 

Though, they noted that they had not had a chance to “winnow down” the cost for employment or human capital. 

Many parents say they are worried about the danger of a longer commute to school. 

Kristin Mattison, of the Weddington cluster, said that more students in the district die in car accidents than natural disasters. 

One of the concerns about increased mobile units voiced by the school board is being unable to provide brick-and-mortar protection to students in the event of an emergency. In addition to core capacity concerns. 

Andrew Lawler of Weddington said “poor” research was done by Webb and the facilities staff, particularly in the presentation when it said redistricting had no increased cost to taxpayers, which was met with booing from the crowd. He wondered about increased transportation costs with children traveling farther to attend. 

Board member Sherry Hodges and Vice Chairwoman Marce Savage voiced their doubts about redistricting. 

Hodges had questions about core capacity and if there were concerns about the core capacity at the older schools. 

“(I am) not convinced of the urgency at this time,” Hodges said in a statement near the end of the meeting. She said she believes their focus should be on healing their relationship with the county commissioners, having the appeal dropped, getting the money awarded by the jury and fixing buildings. 

Savage read from the board policies dealing with neighborhood schools, receiving thunderous applause after each policy was read. She also questioned the concern about natural disasters when they have state-of-the-art forecasts and always err on the side of caution. 

“We don’t live in the dust bowl,” she said. 

Ellis said she respected Savage’s opinion, but would also stand on her own. 

Stewart reiterated his safety concerns, asking if they should eliminate school resource officers because they do not often have fights or violence or eliminate fire alarms because they do not often have fires. 

“Whose children are you willing to put in harm’s way” he asked. The question was met with boos from the audience and many parents yelling “Shame.” 

Hodges said that no one on the board would say that safety is not an issue. Savage said none of them were diminishing safety concerns.

Board member Rick Pigg asked about the possibility of a “phased” redistricting, where current high schoolers would stay in place.

Many board members appreciated that they were able to respect each other and work together, though they disagreed. 

A vote was not taken Thursday night, as it was a work session. A vote will not take place until April, Chairman Richard Yercheck said. 

Yercheck told the audience that they as a board have a duty to represent 42,000 children and more than 200,000 taxpayers. 

He said the process is “very hard” and that his child will be reassigned if the current plan is approved. 

“We took an oath to represent not just you,” he said. “We are a community from east to west.” 

He said he appreciated the passion and the energy of the parents and asked them to work with the board. 

There will be a regular board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. at Sandy Ridge Elementary. There will also be cluster meetings to receive public comments.