Parents, towns push back against UCPS redistricting talk

People concerned about Union County Public Schools Board of Education proposals to redistrict schools in order to address overcrowding will have another chance to learn about the issue and show school system leaders their concerns this week.

UCPS leaders will meet Thursday, Jan. 23, to talk about redistricting – an idea that has frustrated many communities and seen both parents and town leaders mobilize against it. The proposal would force some students to drive as much as an additional 9.4 miles to class in order to alleviate overcrowding at campuses that are dealing with the repercussions of Union County’s rapid growth, though opponents of the plan say there are other options school system leaders should favor instead.

Residents from across Union County have been working together to come up with alternatives to redistricting – something they say will only be a temporary fix for overcrowding in schools. Parents, community members and students met in Wesley Chapel on Saturday, Jan. 18, to begin organizing committees focused on education, media, real estate and more, and how those topics relate to redistricting. The committees will be aimed at generating constructive opposition against and substitutions to redistricting.

The goal of the committees are “to not only stop redistricting, but to help the board of education solve our problems – including fixing our schools, not only building new schools,” Mara MacKinnon, who led the gathering, said.

Though decisions on redistricting won’t happen until later this year, some Union County municipalities have passed resolutions or are considering resolutions opposing the proposed changes. The redistricting would shift nearly 5,800 students into new schools, according to UCPS Chief Communications Officer Rob Jackson. The board of education will discuss the proposed redistricting changes during Thursday’s work session at 6 p.m. at the Walter Bickett Education Center, 501 Lancaster Ave. in Monroe.

Thursday’s meeting will not include a time for public comments, but MacKinnon, who is organizing community volunteers to help stop redistricting, is urging people to attend regardless.

“Our presence makes a difference,” she said at the meeting in Wesley Chapel.

A majority of concerned parents are upset because this plan will force them to drive their students further to school, as well as send students to schools some say are less desirable. The largest change for families will be seen in the Lee Lake Estates, which currently attends the Monroe cluster. Students living in that subdivision attending Monroe Middle School, which is 3.5 miles away, will be moved to East Union Middle School, which is 12.9 miles away, a 9.4-mile shift, if the changes are approved as proposed.

Other subdivisions seeing a change greater than seven miles are Millbridge and Old Hickory in the Cuthbertson cluster; Bridgewater, Saddlebrook, Wishbone Farms and Victorian Lane in the Monroe cluster; and Breckonridge and Charlestown at Breckonridge in the Sun Valley cluster.

UCPS has implemented a capping procedure to ensure schools do not exceed 120 percent capacity, with only Kensington Elementary and Marvin Ridge and Porter Ridge middle schools currently closed off to new enrollment. After a school is capped, all new students moving into that area will be bused to another school in the county, which some critics say could add up to an additional hour in travel time. The school board began discussions on redistricting early in January in hopes of shifting students so no schools in the county will have to be capped within the next five years, according to projections from the county.

Parents from nearly 40 different developments who now have children attending the Cuthbertson cluster, with a 97.6 graduation rate, will see a shift to the Parkwood cluster, which has a 84 percent graduation rate; the Sun Valley cluster, which has a 87.5 graduation rate; and the Weddington cluster, which has a 98.6 percent graduation rate, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

“People are concerned about their children having to leave the school that they chose for them to attend,” Anylesa Johnson, Cuthbertson High School’s parent-teacher group president, said about concerns she’s heard from parents. Rising seniors will likely be allowed to stay at their high school, and there have been some discussions about letting rising juniors stay, as well.

The Cuthbertson cluster, which includes Kensington and New Town elementary and Cuthbertson middle and high schools, is currently projected to see capping at three of the four schools, but with the reassignment all schools should be under the 120 percent capacity mark.

The Weddington cluster also will see a large shift of students if the proposed redistricting is approved, which will impact nearly 60 subdivisions. Weddington, which has a 98.6 percent graduation rate, will see students moving to the Sun Valley cluster, with a 87.5 graduation rate; the Porter Ridge cluster, with a 93.5 graduation rate; and a few to the Monroe cluster, with a 84.4 percent graduation rate.

But Board of Education member Kevin Stewart says the level of education shouldn’t be a concern for parents.

“Some folks just aren’t aware that the neighborhood schools can offer the same education as the schools they are in now,” he said following the Jan. 14 Facilities Committee meeting. “There’s a lot of apprehension because of that, but Union County is a system that is recognized nationally for our scores and achievement. I, for one, believe that our whole system is worthy of praise.”

Students in the Piedmont cluster who would be redistricted would be transferred to the Monroe cluster, which has a nearly 6 percent lower graduation rate. Most other redistricted students would attend a school of nearly the same graduation rate or a higher graduation rate.

Crime rates in Union County schools for the 2011-12 school year also separate clusters from one another and cause some concern for parents. UCPS saw a total of 336 incidents in schools throughout the county, or 8.47 incidents per 1,000 students, according to the most recent information from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Incidents include crimes such as possession of a weapon, possession of a controlled substance or alcohol, assault, sexual assault, sexual offense, possession of firearm, kidnapping, bomb threats and more.

Schools that saw the highest crime, per 1,000 students, were Monroe Middle, 27.84; Forest Hills High, 31.28; Monroe High, 18.16; Porter Ridge High, 26.33; Parkwood High, 22.57; Piedmont High, 32.17; Sun Valley High, 19.05; and Walter Bickett Elementary, 17.68. Parkwood High School saw a decrease in crime, with 20 acts of crime or violence in 2011-12, down from 31 acts in 2010-11.

Students currently at Cuthbertson High School, which saw 9.59 acts per 1,000 students last school year, would move to Parkwood, Sun Valley and Weddington high schools. Weddington High, which saw 10.58 acts per 1,000 students in 2011-12, would transfer students to Porter Ridge, Sun Valley and Monroe high schools.

In addition to distance and quality of schools, many critics of the proposed rezoning are concerned the board of education is pushing the changes through too fast without enough time to sit down and listen to concerns and ensure the new zones will be a long-lasting fix. This is the third time the county has redistricted schools in the past 10 years.

“I definitely agree there’s an issue in Union County with schools that are capped and overcrowded, and something needs to be done,” Christie Shrader, Weddington Middle School’s parent-teacher group president, said. “… I think they are basically asking for open heart surgery, but I believe they should look at options that are less invasive and disruptive to the community as a whole.”

Other options some parents have mentioned include adding more mobile units or new schools. But, school officials argue, those options may not be enough to fix the problem.

“We are looking at modular units, we are looking at brick and mortar construction,” Stewart said last week. “We are looking at track schools, intermediate schools, potential capping and busing, and what a lot of folks don’t realize, even if in a perfect world where were are able to utilize new brick and mortar … there would still be about 4,000 students that will be influx and be
redistricted.”

Find additional information about restricting, including maps, subdivisions impacted and more at www.ucps.k12.nc.us/links/redistricting.php. Also, see more on this issue in the Jan. 30 issue of Union County Weekly.

 

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