School Board: High school boundaries may be changing for 2018

Usually when citizens speak up at School Board meetings they address the board.

To support her point, Kathy Woollum enlisted the audience.

"Many people here tonight are here to support high school redistricting, … perhaps it would be helpful if those who would like to see high school redistricting included, stood," Woollum said.

Most of the 40-person audience got on their feet.

Woollum, a Lafayette High School mom, was among 14 speakers at the school board's Tuesday night meeting.

The board was slated to decide whether to award one of two contracts to California-based consulting firm Cooperative Strategies to lead the redistricting process. Middle school attendance boundaries were always part of the plan in order to accommodate James Blair Middle School opening in September 2018.

Cooperative Strategies said it would cost $86,205 to only address middle school zones and $96,625 to include high schools. To do high schools later with a different contract would have likely increased the price significantly.

The seven board members voted unanimously to include both levels.

"It's definitely the will of the community to redistrict middle and high schools … so for me, it's a no brainer," board member Lisa Ownby (JCC Powhatan) said Tuesday.

An exploration

Citing the roughly $14,500 difference to do both, James City County resident Wendy Musumeci said Tuesday it "makes both practical and economic sense."

The board first proposed including high schools in the process April 11 to address compounding capacity issues at the three high schools. Optimal capacity for a building is 88 percent; in 2016-17, Lafayette was at the 88 percent threshold, Warhill was at 90 percent and Jamestown at 110 percent — and all are expected to grow.

Tracy Luck, Berkeley Middle School's former PTA president, didn't speak at the meeting but wrote in an email Friday she is against including high schools. Her daughter is a rising freshman at Jamestown and Luck wants her to stay at Jamestown for her entire high school career.

At the April meeting and again Tuesday, Jim Kelly (JCC Jamestown) advocated for addressing middle schools this year and high schools at a later date, if the board still felt it was necessary.

Kelly said it's still not a done deal that high school boundaries will change. Having Cooperative Strategies explore changing the zones is just that, an exploration.

"We voted to look at the maps, and see what those maps look like," Kelly said Friday. "It will be interesting to see what the maps look like based on what criteria we come up with and whether (redistricting high schools) becomes the right thing to do or if we should stay where we are."

He mentioned that even if rezoning balanced the capacity between the schools, each would then be in the 90-percent capacity range. At the meeting, he described the move as "kicking the can down the road."

Equity issues

Williamsburg Education Association President Kim Hundley agreed this wouldn't be the last redistricting, as a growing community it's bound to happen again in a few years. Woollum said when she moved here nine years ago, she was advised to pick a house based on what she wanted, not what school it was zoned for.

But Hundley said many parents do buy based on the school.

"There are a lot of people that move into Jamestown (high school's zone) because of the school, you've got the more affluent population there," Hundley said Friday. "I'm talking about access, things that are accessible more in affluent schools or affluent communities."

Nearly every speaker Tuesday advocated for the board to use redistricting to balance diversity and improve equity between the schools. Ownby agreed, noting that even if redistricting for capacity is a temporary fix, adjusting zones for equity purposes is an attainable goal.

"Something we can mitigate out the gate in 2018 is the equity issues," Ownby said Tuesday.

Hundley pointed out that Jamestown has the lowest rate of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch (18 percent) and of minority students (29 percent).

Warhill High School has 28 percent qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch and its population is 36 percent minority, according to Virginia Department of Education data for 2016-17. Lafayette has the most students in each category: 38 percent qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch and its population is 46 percent minority.

"We need to redraw our boundaries so that the rich diversity of our community is represented," Amy Quark, a College of William and Mary professor and member of the education-advocacy group The Village, said Tuesday. "Students learn the most from students that are different from them."

Community input

Woollum said she was pleased to see so many parents speak up at the meeting. She said people can't assume elected representatives will work for what the people want if the people don't speak up.

"There is definitely a groundswell, and there were a number of parents in our community, particularly in the community that supports Lafayette, that felt was important to be at that meeting," Woollum said Friday. "You have to get involved and you have to understand what's happening, you have to do your research and you have to be part of the solution."

Transparency and a full set of data are important moving forward, Woollum said.

While a final timeline is yet to be determined, School Board Chairwoman Kyra Cook (Williamsburg) said there will be a public hearing on criteria in late summer or early fall. Criteria could include balancing capacity, diversity or keeping neighborhoods together.

The speakers Tuesday night want diversity at the top of the criteria priority list.

"It's no longer true, I think, about Williamsburg that all the schools are the same. Property values are important and property values are affected by good schools and that affects how much money you have to use for the schools," City resident Beth Chambers told board members Tuesday. "I think every kid, every household, no matter whether it has high property value or low property value, needs a good school."

The school board's next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 1.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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