Rochester school district begins boundary changes with GuideK12 in their tool kit

The two-word phrase that strikes dread in the hearts of many district parents is again being uttered by Rochester Public Schools officials.
Boundary adjustments.
District leaders are considering boundary changes as a “short-term adjustment” for the next year. But in the long run, Rochester may need one, if not two, new schools to handle future projected growth, said one school board member.

“My take from our last meeting, in my mind at least: We absolutely have to have at least one more school the way enrollment is increasing,” said Rochester School Board Chairwoman Jean Marvin. “Again, we’re just exploring this, but we’re looking at an elementary or an elementary and a middle school.”
District officials informed 250 families last week that their neighborhoods would be impacted by proposed boundary changes for next year and that their children could be attending different schools.
The proposed solution, which is still in the early stages of discussion, would be to take students from overcrowded elementary schools — Bamber Valley, Elton Hills, Gibbs and Jefferson — and shift them to less populated ones — Churchill-Hoover, Riverside Central and Sunset Terrace — to achieve a short-term balance.
The changes would also have a cascading effect on secondary schools such as John Adams and Kellogg middle schools and Century and John Marshall high schools.

Upcoming meeting

Redrawing school boundaries can be an emotionally wrenching process for parents, because many form strong allegiances to their schools and often make decisions on where to live based on their perception of a school’s quality.

A community meeting is planned for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at the Edison building, 615 Seventh St. SW, Rochester, to take public input through an “options feedback form.” After taking parent feedback, a boundary adjustment recommendation is expected to be presented to the school board on Feb. 20.
“Boundary adjustments are always emotional,” Marvin said. “As a former teacher and parent, I absolutely understand that. However, I’ve been in this district for 45 years now, and I have never known any kind of boundary adjustments to happen where the people don’t end up feeling really good about it.”
The biggest driver for the proposed map changes is growth in student population, officials say. Enrollment growth has averaged 248 kids a year since the 2010-11 school year, the year that Superintendent Michael Munoz joined the district. That’s nearly a 10 percent growth over the seven-year period, from 16,443 in 2010-11 to 17,932 this year. Next fall, projections have Rochester exceeding 18,000 students.

Unanswered questions

The last time Rochester made boundary adjustments was four years ago, in 2014. One wrinkle that will make this process different is Rochester’s use of new software called GuideK12. The analytical tool allows officials to see how boundary map shifts changes the each school’s composition in terms of race, socio-economic status and second-language learners.
Yet some unanswered questions remain. Harriet Bishop Elementary School, for example, is at 144 percent capacity. At 504 students, it bulges with 154 more students than its 350-student capacity, according to district documents. Yet the proposed map makes no changes to Harriet Bishop. Churchill-Hoover elementary school is already at capacity, yet the plan would shift more students to it.

When asked why Harriet Bishop, which is the second-most overcrowded elementary school, according to district numbers, went untouched, district spokeswoman Nicolle Osterhout said maps created to deal with the situation created undesirable consequences.
“We did try that on our first draft, but we ran into a problem of where to put the Gibbs’ kids,” she said in an email. “We couldn’t do both, so we backed off of making a change for Bishop for right now and will continue to monitor it to see if there is anything we can do. The area we looked at changing is directly across West Circle Drive to the east, so some families would have been able to see Bishop out their window, but would have been bused up to Sunset Terrace in that model. For now, we are leaving it alone.”
Marvin said she also wants answers to those questions. She said one reason Churchill-Hoover might be slated to take on more students next year is that it’s projected to have fewer students next year. But she didn’t know why Bishop is being left out of the proposed equation.
“After we get more feedback, there might be tweaks to this, too,” Marvin said.
Jefferson is also a unique case. The number of students it serves falls well short of capacity, yet the plan would ship more students out of its attendance area. The reason: Jefferson houses the district’s program for students with autism, where seven classrooms are devoted to the program and classrooms serve just six students.

A warmup?

Boundary adjustments for next year could prove to be a warmup to bigger changes in the future, if and when more schools are built.
Building new schools means increased property taxes. But the cost to taxpayers of building could be eased by fortuitous timing. The district’s debt payments are slated to decline in 2020, when Century and Riverside Central schools will be paid off. That means that if the board chooses to hold a building referendum within the next 18 months, passage would result in no tax hikes related to district debt. But savings from decreased debt would also not be realized by taxpayers.
“The district can support up to $57.9 million of construction related debt with no taxpayer increase,” a district document stated.
“We know we have to build. We know we need additional schools,” Marvin said. “It’s sort of a good problem to have. That our district is growing so quickly. In the short term, though, we know we have to get some of these crowded schools less crowded.”
Officials say certain categories of students would be immune from any changes: Students who are currently in fourth and seventh grades will be allowed to finish their fifth and eighth grade next year at their current school. Students in grades 8 through 11 in the impacted boundary area will not be required to change schools unless they want to.
“Things have to change, and thank goodness, we have a lot of really good schools,” Marvin said.



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