The Union County Public Schools Board of Education unanimously voted to turn down the county’s offer of $3 million for mobile classrooms to alleviate overcrowding concerns during the board’s Tuesday, Feb. 18, work session.
Although the original offer letter from the county stated the money would come with “no strings attached,” the school board later learned the $3 million would come from the $91 million the county owes UCPS after last summer’s lawsuit over school funding. Board members did not feel comfortable taking money from other much-needed projects that have already been identified, such as roofing needs and handicapped-accessible improvements in schools, in order to purchase new mobile units and potentially avoid redistricting at some schools.
“I personally am not willing to give up what needs have been identified going down the road,” UCPS Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck said at the meeting. “… I just don’t think this $3 million was given in good faith.”
The Union County Board of Commissioners recently voted to allocate the funds to UCPS to help ease overcrowding and prevent the countywide redistricting currently being discussed as a possible solution to packed schools. Nearly 5,800 students would be shifted to new schools if the school board approves the redistricting as currently proposed.
But the number of students affected by redistricting could decline moving forward. The board asked UCPS Superintendent Dr. Mary Ellis to look at redistricting numbers if rising fifth-, eighth- and 11th-graders also were grandfathered in at their schools like the rising seniors would be. Grandfathering in rising fifth-graders, meaning they would not have to leave their current school, would not cause a problem in relation to bringing any elementary schools into the “watch” or “cap” levels according to population projections used by the board. However, eighth grade may pose an overcrowding problem in some schools if all rising eighth-graders decide to stay at their current school.
“We’ve never had 100 percent of students opt to stay (at their current school),” Ellis said.
If students are grandfathered into their current school, the school board could choose not to provide transportation, something it has done in the past when redistricting, Ellis added.
Allowing rising juniors to stay at their current high school also would not cause any overcrowding problems, according to a presentation during the work session. However, Ellis said, grandfathering all current sitting students could pose some problems and bring schools like Kensington and New Town elementary schools into cap levels.
Grandfathering in current students isn’t the only option school board members wanted to discuss during Tuesday’s work session. Following some emails from parents and community members, Vice Chairman Marce Savage asked if rearranging only clusters that are currently facing overcrowding problems could be done.
“It keeps everyone in their own cluster, and that’s the thorn in my side,” Savage said. “I’m sure that my friends and neighbors would be for breaking it up so they can stay in their home cluster.”
Rearranging clusters would mean breaking up the elementary school by kindergarten to second grade, third to fourth grade and fifth and sixth grade. The middle schools would only be seventh and eighth grades with high schools remaining the same.
“I think it’s a very good problem to have, people not wanting to leave their schools,” Sherry Hodges said. “Nothing we do is going to be free, so I think we need to continue to look at options regardless of whether they cost money or not. … I really do have concerns of falling back on reassignment every two to three years.”
But as long as Union County continues to see the growth it has seen in recent years, building new schools and redistricting may not be something the school board can avoid, Yercheck said. The board does not have the power to limit development or impose taxes for schools. All funding for UCPS comes from the county, state and some federal dollars. Although impact fees for new development were once utilized in the county, the state has since made it illegal to charge developers impact fees to help with additional infrastructure and services needed in the county due to growth.
“As long as (municipalities) rezone and hand out building permits … and the county is handing out water and sewer permits, developers are like crack to them,” Yercheck said at the meeting. “We’re dealing with an issue that they’ve created.”