School board discusses all overcrowding options

MONROE – Redistricting may be the most cost-effective option to fix overcrowding in western Union County schools, though the idea still doesn’t sit well with many parents and local leaders.

Hundreds of people came together last week for a work session with the Union County Public Schools Board of Education to hear a presentation on options to fix overcrowding in county schools. Superintendent Mary Ellis gave the board a presentation covering alternatives such as capping, mobile units, additions, multi-tracking, split track, kindergarten through sixth grade schools, redistricting and more and the costs associated with each option.

According to the presentation, the only alternative that would require no additional funding would be redistricting – an option that has led to public outcry across the county, rallies from frustrated parents and resolutions from municipalities condemning the idea.

“We have looked at multiple options to ease overcrowding … and all options will work depending on what the board wants,” Ellis said.

The board currently has implemented a capping policy where all schools above 120 percent capacity do not allow any additional students. All new students moving into an area after a school has been capped will be bused to another school in the county. The additional buses, about 16, will cost a little more than $2 million per year, not including the pay for bus drivers, if capping remains in place.

While redistricting is believed to be the more cost-effective option, not all board members are convinced redistricting nearly 5,800 students is the best solution to overcrowding in county schools, regardless of costs associated with the alternatives.

“I am very concerned about the redistricting,” at-large school board representative Sherry Hodges said during the meeting. “… For too many years we did not ask for the funds we needed, and we kicked the can down the road. This real issue here is the need for managed growth in this county.”

Facilities Chairman Kevin Stewart disagrees with doubters of the redistricting plan, saying the safety of students should come first in the event of a natural disaster, school shooting or any other incident where all students need to be inside the main school building. That can’t happen with mobile units and the amount of overcrowding some schools currently see.

“We are entrusted to provide safe and secure environments for these students,” Stewart said. “As far as the facilities committee is concerned, this isn’t something that came out of nowhere.”

Since seeing the proposed redistricting plans earlier this year, parents and community members throughout the county have raised concerns about moving students from a school with higher test scores and lower crime rate to schools with lower test scores and a higher crime rate. They also worry the redistricting would lower their property values by moving their homes into a different school cluster and say the board is trying to rush a decision for the 2014-15 school year instead of spending time to consider all options. But even with the construction of a new school or school cluster, something the school board currently doesn’t have funding for, at least 4,000 students would still have to be shifted, Stewart said earlier this month.

Any capital projects the board could decide to pursue would have to be approved by county commissioners. The school board and county commission are still in the process of working through a $91 million award a Union County jury ordered the county pay to the school system last summer that also must be addressed. The jury felt that past funds provided to the school system from the county were not sufficient and needed to be rectified, though the $91 million may only scratch the surface of the system’s needs, some have said. Board of education Chairman Richard Yercheck recently pointed to an infrastructure report conducted by the county and school board in 2007-08 that showed the school system had $283 million in outstanding infrastructure needs, many of which have not been addressed. That number does not include any work needed on schools built since that time.

The county has dragged its feet on paying the jury award so far, saying the huge hit to county coffers will have a devastating impact on services and taxes.

The school board’s next meeting will take place Tuesday, Feb. 4, at 7 p.m. at Marvin Ridge High School, 2825 Crane Road in Marvin. The agenda for the meeting has not been posted on the UCPS website.

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