Saturday, December 15, 2007

Elementary School Redistricting

The ongoing elementary school redistricting process has been a huge eye-opener for me. My son went to Tyrone Elementary, then to Booth, from there to McIntosh and, when they opened Sandy Creek in Tyrone, he moved over to that school.

It wasn't a big deal for us as the new school was closer and most of the friends he had in the area ended up in the same place. We knew when he started his daily trek to Peachtree City for school that Sandy Creek was in the works and he'd be moving to it once open.

Thus, I never paid attention to all the hoopla when the School Board moved students around over the years.

When I decided to cover the redistricting process, I innocently thought that elementary school redistricting would be the easiest of all levels. Breaking up kids in middle and high school after years of being together would certainly be more traumatic a process.

I don't know whether that holds true or not. I'll find out in a few years when the next levels go through redistricting. The elementary school redistricting process has been wild to say the least.

The first eye-opener was when I sat in on the first meeting and started to get a glimpse of all the factors that affected trying to redistrict. Feeder patterns, bus routes, trying to keep neighborhoods together, potential growth patterns and the list of things to consider grew and grew.

Two new schools are coming into play in the near future. It's a domino affect. To fill up the new schools kids have to be pulled from surrounding areas. Pull some from the surrounding schools and some school numbers drop to the point were you have to reach outward from THAT school and grab kids from another school. It's a radiating pattern of shifting students.

Some areas grew faster or larger than anticipated in the past so you have a school that is bursting at the seams three schools away from the new school. Have to fix that, too. So, you move some kids from the overcrowded school to another. Except the next one is right at peak level and the county and city planners are expecting more growth in that area.

You get the idea. You can't just fill up a school on the south end of the county and not expect it to ultimately impact the school in the middle of the county. Domino affect.

Toss in the constraints I mentioned above and it gets even more complicated.

There are some roads in the county where you do NOT want a bus making a left turn across traffic. You have to consider the costs of gas, the travel time on a bus and general routes. It may make a lot of sense to grab all the kids from neighborhood A and move them to school 5, but if you do they're crossing over Hwy. 74 during morning traffic. Oops, can't do that, dangerous for the kids. OK, we'll move kids from neighborhood B to school 5. Nope, can't do that, because then school 8 is half empty. Move to another school nearby and the students are on the bus for an extra half an hour...

The volunteer parent committee had a virtually impossible task. No matter what they did, someone somewhere was going to be unhappy. In fact, a whole lot of someones were going to be unhappy.

They were working solely with the information provided to them by the school staff and the consultant, too. I felt bad for them when, after all their months and months of work, they presented their plans to the Board only to find out they didn't have a critical piece of information that affected their consideration of closing East Fayette Elementary. Some changed their minds.

I still think having the media sitting in on the meetings made things that much more difficult. It inflamed the public. It made it harder for some of the parents to relax and get into the process. It put them in a fishbowl. They handled it well despite all the piecemeal reporting. Not knocking the reporters or the reporting, just impossible to do much in a short space to convey all that really went on.

The school system tried a new way to make the process better. They've been slammed in the past for how they handled redistricting. So, they tried getting an expert to help. They tried bringing in parents from the schools to help.

I think they really truly care about the kids, the community and they continue to try and do the best they can to keep our schools the best in the state. I think every parent who took time from their families to coddle together a plan deserves all of our praise. I understand parents defending their children, their schools and their teachers. I think they had some very valid points at the various meetings where they've provided input. I don't think it helps anyone to slam those who took on a monumental task.

Most of the parents who shared their thoughts with the Board were considerate of the time and concern of those who worked on the maps.

I did wonder about one who felt they'd been left out of the process, ill informed. There were headlines in all the local newspapers, the school board posted everything on their website, the schools posted information, put info in newsletters and on and on. The Fayette Front Page filmed some of the meetings and put them on the Internet (YouTube, Google, etc.). I'm not sure how anyone could have missed out. The meetings were open. Anyone was welcome to drop in and listen. I've thought a lot over the years about how public officials can communicate what they're doing to the general public. The cost of mailing out and /or simply printing and sending home info with students would have taxes rising across the county... What's important to one isn't important to another. I'll do a separate blog on that issue someday. It's interesting.

I think the intention all along was to have public input at the end. The committee worked with all they had, the consultant guided and provided input. Then the maps were to go to the School Board for tweaking. Public input would be sought. Maps would be tweaked some more.

We're getting closer to the end. Two new maps have been compiled using all the hard work of the committee and staff. What they ultimately end up with will not satisfy everyone. It's impossible to add new schools, shift students and not have unhappy parents (or kids).

I think it's great that so many parents care and are willing to attend meetings and share their input. I learned a lot about how involved redistricting is (and how thankless the task can be). I also saw first-hand how great our community is. We are blessed to have parents who are involved, who care, and who fight for their "cubs".

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