Commentary: School boundary changes: Adjustments will be made with eye toward future

Shenandoah County Public Schools is in the process of adjusting the attendance boundaries for the first time in over 30 years.  As can be expected, such a change can make parents and students apprehensive about impacts it may have on their families.

The School Board has gone to great lengths to make this process open to the public.  I know it is hard for parents juggling work, sports, and after-school events to attend all the meetings. As a member of the Boundary Adjustment Steering Committee and the original SPACE committee, I’ve learned a great deal on the rationale and process for the adjustments.

This process began over a year ago with the recognition that Sandy Hook Elementary  and W.W. Robinson Elementary are currently at or over capacity, and the southern campus schools are under-utilized.  This is due to the uneven distribution of students in the county, with the heaviest concentrations in the central and northern ends of the county.  Through committee work and community meetings, the School Board decided to address this uneven distribution by adjusting the attendance zone boundaries, with the goal of redistributing the student population more evenly across the nine main schools.  This will increase facility efficiency across the division, and secondly it will relieve (not solve) some of the issues faced with overcrowding at Sandy Hook and WW. Robinson elementaries.  Last year, several options were looked at by the community and adjusting the boundaries was deemed the most favorable by the community.

This is being done with an eye toward the future. For example, if nothing is done to adjust the boundaries, in 2019 Peter Muhlenberg Middle School will be at 105 percent of capacity.  Furthermore, by making the boundary adjustments now it improves building use efficiency as the School Board moves into the work of developing a long-term master plan for our school buildings and educational adequacy.

These adjustments will not solve the pressure on core facilities like cafeterias and gyms at Sandy Hook or W.W. Robinson. The fact of the matter is this: given the current enrollment of elementary school students and the capacities of the elementary schools, division-wide we are 96 percent full with an uneven distribution of students.

The issue of across attendance zone transfers has been raised.  Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeremy Raley and the consultants have shown that there are 308 students transferring out of the attendance zone they live in and attend school elsewhere in the county.  Forty students transfer across attendance zones with their parent(s) who are school employees.  Sixteen special needs students transfer to receive services they require.  This leaves 252 students transferring out as a result of requests granted by superintendents.  Dr. Raley has granted only two such requests during his tenure.  The net effect of those transfers to each campus is: the southern campus loses 24 students, the central campus gains 74 students, and the northern campus loses 50 students.

If these transfers were eliminated and boundaries not adjusted, Sandy Hook would be at 102.4 percent of capacity and W.W. Robinson would be at 100.5 percent.  While transfer requests that have been granted will need to be addressed by the
School Board along with policies concerning grandfathering students to their current schools, elimination of those transfers alone as the boundaries currently stand does not solve the capacity issues.

It has been stated that some families are using addresses other than the ones where they live so their kids can attend a particular school.  It is difficult to image that given the number of transfer requests previously granted that the extent is so great that if all were caught and corrected the need to adjust the boundaries would be eliminated.  Dr. Raley has made it clear that they review records, look for discrepancies, investigate, and act on reports of those gaming the system.  I’m confident that surveillance will continue.

Even though this is difficult for many and does not solve all our problems, it is what the community selected as the best approach.  The end goal will be a better and stronger school system moving forward.

Seth Coffman is a parent and county resident.