Kanawha school board presents redistricting plans for overcrowded schools
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With a room packed full of concerned South Hills parents, Kanawha County Board of Education members laid out three possible redistricting scenarios Thursday in an attempt to remedy overcrowding in the area's schools.
Ideas for redrawing existing attendance zones include moving some Overbrook Elementary students to Kenna and Holz elementary schools; moving Legg Fork area students who attend Flinn Elementary to Sissonville Elementary or moving Orchard Manor-area students at Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary to Grandview Elementary.
The board also proposed revisions to the school system's transfer policy that crack down on out-of-area transfer applications.
The new policy, which is up for public comment for the next 30 days, would place students who attend a school outside their residential area under more scrutiny by requiring families to renew applications annually and forcing students who move to a new area to go to school in that area. It would also eliminate the current rule that allows students to automatically enroll where their siblings are.
"If schools become overcrowded, a student could be required to either go back to the school where their attendance area is or [be] moved out of the area," said board attorney Jim Withrow. "This allows us flexibility to look each year at enrollment and require that those transfer students attend another school if necessary."
Withrow unveiled a draft of the new policy at Thursday's meeting.
The proposed changes would be "on a going forward basis" and would not affect current students, Withrow said.
Jane Roberts, assistant superintendent of elementary schools, said overcrowding is occurring because education needs are changing while facilities are not. Factors include a demand for more computer labs, an increase in special programs and day care for working families, and also maintaining a legal student-teacher ratio.
Roberts said while the proposed policy would help with "the deceit factor" -- parents who provide false addresses or temporarily rent property to enroll their children in a particular school -- the revisions would make it difficult for families who struggle.
"Most of the out-of-area requests are because they need to keep their child in day care or because grandma provides free day care and they can't afford it. It's very difficult to identify residences for families with financial hardships and whether they qualify as homeless or share an address," she said. "Those are very real heartbreaking stories I'm going to have to face every day."
Superintendent Ron Duerring said it all boils down to whether the student-teacher ratios work out, and whether space and alternate bus routes are available.
The decision to redistrict, he said, is always difficult because it contains "a lot of human factors."
"I'd almost rather close a school than redistrict. At least when you close a school, it's a whole community that you're moving. With redistricting, it's only a part of the community," Duerring said.
Board member Robin Rector was applauded by the crowd when she asked the simple question, "Why can't people just go to the school in the area that they live?"
South Hills-area parents have been voicing their concerns about overcrowding for months. At a school board meeting in October, dozens of parents urged board members to attempt to fix the problem without redistricting, saying they chose their homes based on John Adams Middle and George Washington High attendance zones. The schools have the highest test scores in the county.
A group of John Adams Middle parents are currently raising money to help fund an addition to the building and to eliminate the use of portable outdoor classrooms, while others are targeting the feeder schools because George Washington High "is bursting at the seams."
Overbrook Elementary has already begun making room for students by moving the computer lab into the library and transferring a special education class to a vacant room at nearby Holz.
But parents at Thursday's meeting feared that redistricting would only create a domino effect and move the problem of overcrowding to a different area.
Elizabeth Pellegrin, PTO president at Holz Elementary, told board members that her school supports the new policy proposal but asked for a study of the facility plan in the South Hills district, saying, "There's a bigger picture here.
"The fact is our schools were not built to handle an ever-growing system. You're attempting to retrofit not only technology in these spaces, but [more students.] Even with the addition of portables, our facilities are not meeting the current needs," she said. "With recent events of gun violence, I imagine portables may not be acceptable in the future.
"The addition at John Adams only addresses portables -- not the growth in the Corridor G area," she said.
Susan Stewart, an Overbrook Elementary parent, said the increased enrollment is "just a blip" and worried that if schools are redistricted, her school's PTO won't be able to raise as much money for special programs because of the loss of contributing parents.
"When you pull out the students that you plan to pull out, they are residents who own homes, and you leave Overbrook with a large population of transient housing. These families are integral to Overbook," she said. "They support the funding. We potentially may not have the money to provide the things that we now provide as a school and as parents for our children."
Eugenie Taylor, an Overbrook parent, referred to redistricting as "The R-word," and asked the board to take a look at the system as a whole.
"We don't want a policy based on exceptions and not the rules. All of the numbers and speculations are really soft to us [and] they don't convey confidence the proposed solutions will really take care of all of our schools," she said. "We might end up having other parents who have overages because of this, and it's not good for the system at large.
"Don't use a saw to do the job when you could use a small knife," she said.
The school board will meet again at 4 p.m. on March 4.
Reach Mackenzie Mays at email@example.com or 304-348-4814.