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Parents sound off to board

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Question wisdom of redistricting proposal

By Tom Wilmoth

    Parents of students affected by proposed redistricting plans are asking the Bedford County School Board to consider the hardship placed on families before making any decisions.

    The first two of a series of public hearings were held last Thursday. The majority of speakers on the elementary redistricting proposal represented families with students at Otter River Elementary. A second public hearing on the elementary proposal was scheduled to be held this past Tuesday at Thomas Jefferson Elementary.
    Another public hearing, dealing with a proposed redistricting of sixth grade students in the Liberty Zone will be held next Tuesday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m. in the Bedford Middle School cafeteria.
    The elementary redistricting plan affects elementary schools in the Forest and Liberty zones primarily; the grade 6 redistricting proposal deals with an effort to move the remaining sixth graders in that zone to Bedford Middle School.

The Elementary Redistricting Plan
    A number of concerns were raised with the elementary redistricting plan at last week’s meeting.
    Lance Martin, who has three children at Otter River Elementary who would be redistricted out of the school zone, preferred a plan that would allow the current students to remain there, as well as children who would be entering the school from a family with students already there.
    “They are officially Panthers,” he said of the students.
    The elementary redistricting plan is being proposed to help relieve crowding at Forest Elementary and New London Academy as well as to make better use of existing capacities at Big Island and Boonsboro Elementary schools.
    Some  260  students  would be affected by the plan, about 2.5 percent of the school population. Of those, about 76 students would actual change their school graduation zones.
    The goal of the proposal is to get school populations closer to their actual capacity. Under the plan, Boonsboro’s enrollment would grow from 268 to 316, moving 14 students out to Big Island but adding 37 from Forest Elementary and 25 from Thomas Jefferson.
    Berry Rice, who lives in Forest, said they live on Elk Valley Road, only a few miles from their current school, but under the proposal would be rezoned to Big Island. That, Rice said, would add more than 25 miles of travel time each day. She added that child care is no longer available in Big Island.
    Sherry Rice also added that her family moved to that same area specifically so their children could attend Forest schools. “It’s going to be hard,” she said of making the redistricting adjustments.
    Forest Elementary’s enrollment would be reduced from 460 to 295 by sending 14 students to Big Island and 50 to Thomas Jefferson Elementary schools, along with the redistricting to Boonsboro.
    Angela Harris told school board members that changing zones could reduce property values. “I’d like to see my grandchildren go there (to Otter River),” she said of the plan which would keep that from happening. Harris added that the travel time would make it difficult for parents to be involved in school activities at Big Island. “We love Otter River School,” she said.
    New London would reduce its student population from 339 to 295 by sending 56 students to Otter River, while adding 12 from TJES in the plan.
    Otter River would move 19 students to Big Island and 29 to Bedford Elementary/Bedford Primary, while adding the majority of its students from New London.
    Some parents questioned whether their children would receive as good an education at BES, if they had to transfer from Otter River.
    Brian Powers, who lives off of Centerville Road, said travel time to Big Island would increase to 40 minutes, rather than the five minute drive now from their home to Otter River. “Slow down and address this problem the right way,” he said.
    In all Big Island would grow from 177 students to 224, leaving it at 75 percent capacity.
    All of those numbers are based on if redistricting took place today and no one was grandfathered in to their current schools. The actual numbers would be subject to when redistricting actually took place and which students would be allowed to stay at their current schools.
    Lonice Harris said her child was bullied at a previous school, but has thrived at Otter River. “It would have dangerous effects on him,” she said of having to move to another school. “That’s a risk I can’t take with my one and only pride and joy.”
    School staff is proposing for the changes to go into effect June 30, 2013, allowing students to request zone transfers according to board policy, which allows students to request a zone transfer and finish their sequence of grades at the school they have been attending.
    Under this scenario, parents would be responsible for providing transportation for students granted zone transfers and no siblings beginning kindergarten next year would be allowed to request a zone transfer.
    Mandy Baber said current residents living in the Otter River school zone should be allowed to remain at that school, including those still yet to enter school.
    Two other options were also discussed, which would grandfather in rising fifth grade students and any middle and high school students affected by zone changes. Any students grandfathered in would be responsible for their own transportation.
    A third option, also to go into effect next June, would immediately require all students affected to begin attending their new schools, with no students being “grandfathered in.”
    The board hopes to take action on one of the plans in January, in order to be able to alert families affected by the plan time to deal with the changes.
    Board Chairman Gary Hostutler said he appreciated the feedback from parents. “No decisions have been made,” he said.

Liberty Zone Grade 6 Redistricting
    There is also a proposal to incorporate sixth grade students in the Liberty High Zone into Bedford Middle School. The goal would be to move all remaining sixth graders from Big Island, Montvale and Thaxton Elementary schools to BMS, but that possibility probably hinges on whether the city of Bedford will allow mobile classrooms to be set up at the school to accommodate those additional students.
    Staff are also evaluating what the impact of adding the sixth graders to BMS would have on common areas of the school such as the cafeteria and library.
    Heather Garrett, president of the Bedford Middle PTA, said the school is already crowded and the problem would only get worse with bringing in the sixth graders from Montvale, Thaxton and Big Island. She said 6th graders are already eating lunch at 10:30 a.m. because of the limitations of the cafeteria. “In the afternoon, they’re starving,” she said.
    Garrett suggested waiting to move the sixth grade students together until the new middle school in the Liberty Zone is built as part of the reversion agreement. “What’s the hurry?” she asked. “I’m simply saying, there is no room.”