2018-01-24 / Featured / Front Page

School Board set to tackle redistricting

Bermuda District schools first to reshuffle students

The newly built Enon Elementary School, which is under construction, above, will be among those schools affected by the School Board’s redistricting efforts in the Bermuda District. 
JAMES HASKINS The newly built Enon Elementary School, which is under construction, above, will be among those schools affected by the School Board’s redistricting efforts in the Bermuda District. JAMES HASKINS Redistricting may be considered the “third rail” of education politics, but even with another School Board election looming next year, Carrie Coyner insists she and her fellow board members won’t be deterred by potential consequences at the ballot box.

“If we’re balancing out school enrollments and doing what is best for our children and communities, it should never become a political issue,” Coyner said in an interview Sunday evening.

“The biggest challenge of redistricting is the unknown, but there’s not a single school in my district that I wouldn’t send my own children to. The quality of the teaching in these schools is amazing. If I didn’t feel confident about that, I wouldn’t be able to talk to parents and assure them their kids will flourish.”

Coyner, who has represented the Bermuda District on the School Board since 2012, gets a chance to have that discussion beginning this week. Nearly two years after the School Board rejected a consultant’s countywide redistricting proposal, the school system has developed a plan for “spot redistricting” to coincide with the opening of four new elementary schools funded by a 2013 bond referendum.

One of those schools, a replacement for Enon Elementary, is expected to open next January.

According to Coyner, the spot redistricting plan will create excess capacity in all Bermuda District elementary schools by the start of the 2019-20 school year, alleviate significant overcrowding at Elizabeth Scott Elementary and eliminate the need for classroom trailers across the district.

“It’s so exciting that we’ve figured out how to balance school enrollments so that every child in the Bermuda District has a seat in a building,” she said. “We’ve given every school in the district breathing room for future growth and flexibility for new programs.”

A community meeting on the Bermuda redistricting proposal originally was scheduled for Jan. 18, but it was postponed because of last week’s snowstorm. The meeting will now take place Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. at Elizabeth Davis Middle School.

In advance of the meeting, the school system posted several documents on its website related to the redistricting plan – including current and projected capacity and enrollment data for all Bermuda District elementary schools, a list of subdivisions slated to be moved into a different school attendance zone and color-coded maps of the current and projected zones.

Tim Bullis, a spokesman for Chesterfield County Public Schools, said the spot redistricting will “more efficiently utilize classroom space, create more neighborhood schools and enhance our efforts to create cleaner middle school feeder patterns.”

School officials have known for many years that there is excess capacity at the county’s elementary, middle and high schools. Because student enrollment isn’t distributed evenly across the school system, some schools are significantly overcrowded and others have hundreds of empty seats.

Comprehensive K-12 redistricting has never been done in Chesterfield. But pressure has mounted for the School Board to take decisive action as enrollments swelled in the county’s rapidly growing northwestern quadrant and left some schools scrambling to accommodate the additional students.

In September 2015, the outgoing School Board paid a consultant $25,000 to explore the possibility of redrawing each of the county’s school attendance zones.

Unwilling to force approximately 25 percent of Chesterfield County Public Schools’ 60,000 students to change schools, the current board declined to act on the consultant’s proposal.

Forty percent of the affected students would have been at the elementary level, where parents historically have been most resistant to such a change.

“To have such a significant number of moves … you’re breaking up entire communities,” Midlothian School Board representative Javaid Siddiqi said at the time. “I couldn’t make a compelling case for creating so much discomfort.”

Board members and Superintendent James Lane agreed it made more sense to do spot redistricting as the new elementary schools opened, rather than risk having to move some children more than once within a 3- or 4-year period.

By linking the redistricting effort to the schools’ construction timetables, though, the board left itself the unenviable task of moving kids out of their current schools while also running for re-election.

Midlothian’s new Old Hundred Elementary, which is slated to open in September 2019, will provide immediate relief for severe overcrowding at nearby J.B. Watkins Elementary.

Still, considering how fiercely loyal many Watkins parents have been to that school despite its capacity issues, they might not welcome being redistricted – and they could take out their frustration at the polls two months later.

“It’s a challenge because everyone loves their school,” Coyner said. “I know once families get to know their new school community, they’ll love it. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be hard.

“Will everybody be happy? No. You’ll never make everybody happy about anything. But I think you’ll see board members stay the course. As leaders, that’s what we’re called to do.” ¦

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