Boundary Issues

By Del Stover

No parents wants to see their children forced to change schools because school attendance boundaries are redrawn. And school boards aren’t thrilled with redrawing those boundaries, which, if not done with care, can lead to concern and conflict within the community.

But sometimes it needs to be done. So when North Carolina’s Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools needed to prepare a new district-level student reassignment plan for the first time in 20 years, school leaders realized they had to develop a process for redistricting that parents and families could accept.

“We had to talk about how to build public trust with this effort so that this didn’t end up being a war with the community,” says Superintendent Anthony Jackson.

It wasn’t an idle concern. The community recently had gone through contentious debate over the cost and location of the district’s newest high school, he says. But school officials clearly recognized that across the 16,500-student district some schools were underused, while others were overcrowded. One middle school, designed for 800 students, was bursting its seams at 1,300.

The stage was set for change when the board hired Jackson in 2011. The opening of the new high school meant redistricting was necessary anyway, he says, and he was up to the challenge. “We wanted to demonstrate good stewardship by filling those [empty] seats, while helping those schools that were over capacity.”

Building trust
The question for school leaders, however, was how to build public trust in the redistricting process so that parental objections would not lead to controversy.

“We wanted to engage everybody … to give everyone a voice in the process—but also get people to recognize that there were no sub-agendas … that we would do things openly and fairly,” says Jackson.

To accomplish this goal, the board set seven priorities that the student reassignment plan would have to weigh:

• the need for adjacent boundaries;

• respect for neighborhoods;

• proximity of students to schools;

• each school’s enrollment capacity;

• a new feeder system for high schools;

• future needs based on anticipated growth; and

• as balanced an enrollment as possible among schools.

By setting these parameters for the process, the board hoped to make future decisions about school boundaries as deliberate and fact-based as possible—and allay any public concerns about hidden agendas in the process, Jackson says.

To oversee the process, the board hired professional demographers to do the math—and appointed a 33-member advisory committee to make the final recommendation on the plan to the board.

The board attempted to appoint as many different stakeholders as possible to this committee. “We had board members appoint representatives from their districts, and then we selected individuals from higher education, business, parents … all stakeholder groups.”

To add to the committee’s credibility, the school board decided that the reassignment process would be as transparent as possible, Jackson says. All meetings were open to the public and recorded, and all information provided to the committee—along with minutes of each meeting—were posted on the district website.

Revisions and public acceptance
The open debate proved to be important after demographers shared an early proposal for student reassignments. That proposal assigned students by their proximity to schools, but it split up some neighborhoods by sending students to different campuses.

What’s more, the plan would have transferred nearly 4,000 students—one-quarter of the district’s enrollment—to a new school. Those results didn’t sit well with parents.

“People actually had not been paying too close attention to the process, so when that map hit the news, the website, that opened people’s eyes,” says school board Chair Evelyn Bulluck. “They realized, ‘Wait a minute. We need to look at this more closely.’”

But, as the committee revised the plan over and over again—and the community began to see that its concerns were being addressed in later revisions—public acceptance began to grow, Jackson adds. “Once people realized we were listening and making those adjustments, it got so much easier.”

School officials did their part. Jackson toured the district to hold informal “community conversations” during which the superintendent would offer a progress report and answer questions. The board also reached out to the community through four public hearings.

“Once we got [4,000 students] down to a reasonable number,” Bulluck says, “and we explained the reasons for it and could justify moving those kids, it was accepted.”

Near the end of the process, Jackson says, attendance at public meetings had dropped significantly, to a dozen or fewer.

A public survey made clear the progress that school officials were making. “We had nearly 1,500 people take a survey, and when the survey results came back, 89 percent ... were in favor [of the recommendations].”

Unanimous approval
Yet, engaging the public did more than simply mute opposition to the reassignment plan, Jackson says. Parents and community members proved invaluable in improving the plan. While the demographers understood the math well enough, they didn’t have the public’s grasp of the community itself.

For example, after one revision was released, someone pointed out that a new street created easier access to a neighborhood than demographers had realized—a factor that influenced the assignment of many students, he says. “The true experts were the people who lived in the community.”

In the end, school officials realized they’d made another important decision early on in the process. At first, they had considered a timeline that wrapped up the committee’s work quickly. But upon reflection, the board decided to take its time with the plan’s development.

“I asked for a year to complete the work, in time for implementation in the following year,” Jackson says. “That made a difference. We took our time. We said up front, ‘We make no promises, but we will listen to you.’”

Bulluck agrees it was the right decision. “We wanted parents to have enough time to know what schools their children would be attending. We didn’t want to tell them in June that, come August, your child will be attending this school. We wanted to build in enough time so they would be able to adapt to the change.”

At the end, the advisory committee voted unanimously to approve the new school boundaries—and, after a few last-minute tweaks in response to public comments, the board gave its unanimous approval as well, Jackson says.

This past fall, 2,300 students changed schools, and there was no outcry at all from the community. And the district saved nearly $650,000 by eliminating bus routes and decommissioning numerous mobile classrooms.

So, one of the most potentially controversial policy decisions any school board has to make went off without a hitch in the Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools. And school leaders attribute their smooth transition to their crucial decision to emphasize public transparency and listening.

“Because we were transparent, people trusted the information we shared,” Bulluck says. “There was nothing they wanted to know that wasn’t readily available; therefore they bought into the process. When people know what you’re doing, how it’s being done, and why you’re doing it, they can—whether they agree with you or not—at least accept the change.”

Del Stover (dstover@nsba.org) is senior editor of American School Board Journal.