It's a prickly issue that the district's Enrollment Priorities Task Force has chewed on since October of last year. On the one hand, three of the district's elementary schools are more than packed, struggling to house students even with temporary portable classrooms clogging up play areas. A new school on North Whisman Road is also set to open in the 2019-20 school year, and a successful opening means it needs a full complement of students attending on day one.
The school district adopted new attendance boundaries last year to help balance out enrollment between its campuses and fill up the new school, which are supposed to take effect in fall 2019. But how hard to enforce those boundaries right out the gate has turned into a political football, with parents from affected neighborhoods advocating for a grandfathering policy and demanding carve-outs and exceptions whenever possible.
Parent Lindsay Phillips encouraged trustees at the May 3 board meeting to take a lenient approach to enforcing the new boundaries and minimize the number of children who will have to relocate to a new school next year. Students from certain schools — particularly Bubb, Huff and Landels elementary schools — would have to weather the brunt of the changes, with 127 students currently attending Bubb who would potentially have to move to Landels for the 2019-20 school year.
"I'm doing what any parent and educator would do, which is advocating for minimal disruption for my kids' and all kids' education," Phillips told board members.
Shoreline West parent Jason Taylor, who lives in a community that would be subject to forced transfers from Bubb to Landels, said the district's data may not capture just how disruptive it is for kids and families to switch gears and attend a different school. Students build relationships with one another and have friends, which would magnify the effects of boundary changes, he said, and which isn't represented in demographic charts and maps.
But there's pressure to move students sooner rather than later. Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said portable classrooms — which were meant to be temporary — will continue to crowd out play space at Bubb, Huff and Landels until the boundaries take effect. The district is at a "breaking point," he said, and ancillary services and programs that require flexible space will have to fall to the wayside to accommodate more classrooms.
"We have three schools that are currently reaching capacity," he said. "We can no longer afford to keep putting kids into the schools without adjusting something. Landels is now officially at capacity, and we could not add another class even if we wanted to."
Task force takes a back seat
The Enrollment Priorities Task Force was supposed to tackle the grandfathering issue and consider changes to the district's intradistrict transfer policies, which allow families to transfer their children to another district school outside of their own neighborhood. But in an unexpected move, district officials decided last month to remove grandfathering from the task force's scope of work.
In an email to task force members on April 27, three days after the last meeting, Rudolph wrote that grandfathering had turned into a time sink that was "dominating" discussion, and that he and Assistant Superintendent Carmen Ghysels decided to "remove this issue from the task force and send it to the board."
District spokeswoman Shelly Hausman contested the idea that grandfathering was revoked from the scope of the task force, saying that the task force spent plenty of time on the topic and will be handing off its "work and data related to grandfathering" to the board for further consideration in order to focus on intradistrict transfer policies.
"The (task force's) work on enrollment priorities is moving along well," she said in an email. "The last piece — grandfathering — needs deeper consideration by the board."
At previous meetings, task force members had reached a rough consensus that grandfathering of fifth-grade students in the 2019-20 school year would suffice as the only exception to the new boundaries. But the issue took a renewed focus at the April 24 meeting after members of the community were invited to weigh in. They largely advocated for more lax grandfathering policies, input that took up the whole meeting and threw the task force's prior stance into question, said Bill Lambert, a task force member and former district trustee.
Parents who spoke at the meeting, many of whom had children who would bear the brunt of grandfathering policy decisions, felt they weren't being heard and wanted to weigh in on the task force's discussion. But in reality, Lambert said, it was parents insisting on policies that best suit their children rather than any larger constituency.
"It was ostensibly representatives from these interest groups, but what it devolved into was individuals advocating for their own personal interests and own personal needs," he said.
Board members did not take a vote at the May 3 meeting, but did suggest softening the approach to grandfathering. Trustees suggested that families zoned for Slater could be subject to harsher restrictions because they are benefiting from a brand new neighborhood school, or that kids attending schools with plenty of room — like Theuerkauf, Monta Loma and Castro elementary schools — could be allowed to stay for an extended period without putting pressure on facilities space.
Lambert said the district needs to be fair with everyone, and said making exceptions for one group or one region of the city means exceptions for everyone — perpetuating the uneven enrollment problem for years to come. Leaving the existing portable classrooms at Bubb, Huff and Landels will cost the district about $9,600 per portable, totaling $225,000 each year, according to recent district estimates.
Although the task force had made significant progress, Lambert said the April 24 meeting was counterproductive, and that he's not surprised that Rudolph decided to pull the plug on grandfathering and hand the political hot potato directly to the board.
"We were definitely getting there until this last meeting, until you had the individuals come in and advocate," he said. "It undermined the objectivity of the task force."
Although 637 currently enrolled students may be moved due to the boundary changes, that number represents the high mark for how many children would be affected. If the school board decides to allow families to freely send their children to any campus where space is available, similar to the open enrollment process in place today, the free-flow of students out of neighborhoods could bring the number of forced moves way down. If the board ends or severely limits intradistrict transfers, then it's possible that one-fourth of the elementary school-age students in the district will face displacement.
The school board is expected to make a final decision on grandfathering and transfer policies on June 14.
This story contains 1207 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.