Boundary changes are “never fun,” Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer concedes, but sometimes necessary to address inefficiencies.
Since voters rejected a multiphase plan this past April to build a new, expanded middle school and retire two elementary schools, VanLeer said the district has to look at other options on the best use of all buildings.
Those options include boundary changes, she said, because some schools are overcrowded while others are not anywhere near capacity.
VanLeer said Prop R, which was voted down, would have allowed the district to close Fifth Street Elementary, which is in need of major repairs, and South Point Elementary, which is located in a floodplain. The current middle school would have then been converted to a K-5 elementary.
All of the other elementary schools also would have converted to K-5 schools, gaining additional classroom space with sixth grade becoming part of the middle school structure.
Before any school boundary is adjusted, VanLeer said considerable study will be done and input sought.
To begin the process, VanLeer and other administrators met this week with First Planning Solutions, a division of First Student, the district’s bus provider, to discuss a boundary study.
“It makes the best sense to start with our transportation provider because any boundary change made has a significant impact on our bus routes,” she said.
“We will be looking at our current boundary lines and will work to get up-to-date maps and attendance areas split into sections so that we can study them for changes and adjustments, as well as other issues,” she told the school board in an email update this week.
VanLeer stressed boundary changes are likely a year or more off because of all of the planning and study involved.
“We are in the very beginning stages and we have no answers right now,” she said. “This is very complicated and the issues are plentiful.”
VanLeer said the study will closely look at current enrollment at each building, staffing considerations, subgroups, such as special needs or gifted, building capacity and so on.
“There is no good solution here,” she said. “But we will look at everything, including different grade configurations, such as making a school a kindergarten and first-grade center as an example. But then it always comes down to transportation and how does that look.”
The reality, VanLeer said, is that there will likely need to be large population changes to affect big changes.
“And anytime you do that, more issues come up,” she said. “It’s not easy.”
The superintendent said the study will take a significant amount of time and include a period of community engagement.
“I don’t think we’ll have anything final for next year,” she said.
VanLeer said she knows boundary changes are never popular, especially when a family has to switch schools, but the district does not have a lot of options.
“At this point, without a new middle school, we can’t retire any other building, and we’re not going to spend any more money on buildings not included in our long-range plans,” she said. “So we have to addresses the inefficiencies in our buildings.”
For example, Vanleer said Labadie Elementary, in northeastern Franklin County, once a growing school only has about 98 students right now, but room for over 200. Whereas Washington West Elementay, located on the city’s western boundary, is running out of space.
The district also is utilizing modular trailers for classrooms at other sites, she said, which comes at a price.
“We can’t continue to operate like that,” she said.