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After parent pushback, Orange County Schools Board pauses decision on redistricting

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A concernced parent pleads for the Board to reconsider their plan to shut down one of the Orange County elementary schools at the school board meeting on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019.

Orange County Schools is developing a student reassignment plan that could alter where students in the district attend school, but the Board of Education decided to delay action after a heated public meeting on Monday.

The plan comes as an effort to help balance socio-economics and alleviate under and overcrowding throughout the school district — specifically, the elementary schools. The plan would also accommodate residential growth in Hillsborough and Mebane and improve older facilities, such as Hillsborough Elementary School. 

“It’s no secret that we have aging facilities that require renovations comparable to the cost of building a brand new school,” said Jake Henry, chief operations officer for the school district, at an Orange County Schools Board of Education meeting on Aug. 12. “One of the specific examples of that is Hillsborough Elementary, which based on our standards for construction, requires a significant amount of renovations.”

According to OCS construction standards, third to fifth grade classrooms, the learning commons, administrative offices and teacher and student support areas of Hillsborough Elementary School are too small. 

The reassignment plan is also being developed in light of a school assignment and demographic study conducted by the N.C. State University Operations Research and Education Laboratory, known as OREd, a third party evaluation research group that offers data-driven school planning solutions. 

By conducting a land-use study, OREd was able to create a 10-year membership prediction for the district.  

According to the prediction, Cameron Park Elementary School, Efland Cheeks Elementary School, Grady Brown Elementary School, Hillsborough Elementary School and New Hope Elementary School will all be over capacity by 2023. 

But the elementary school predictions do not account for pre-K classes, kindergarten through third grade class size changes or exceptional children’s classes with four students. 

Will Atherton, chairperson of the OCS Board of Education, said at the Aug. 12 meeting that this means the predictions are inaccurate, and the board needs to understand what it's really working with.

“I feel strongly about it because it’s very misrepresentative of our needs versus actuals,” he said.

Additionally, Hillsborough Elementary School has a fixed enrollment. Because student enrollment is expected to increase, students in this zone would need to be relocated.

“We definitely don’t show a school with a fixed enrollment growing because it can’t absorb those unless we decide that we’re going to allow more students to go into it,” said Matthew Roberts, a board of education member at the Aug. 12 meeting. 

According to Policy 4125 Student Assignment & Transfer, when forming a school reassignment plan, the school district considers four guiding principles: student achievement, proximity, stability and operational efficiency. 

These four principles have guided the creation of three possible scenarios that were presented to the school board on Aug. 12.

The first scenario would be to balance current classroom utilization. 

According to the OCS reassignment presentation, when pre-K classrooms are considered, school enrollment and capacity is at 96 percent district-wide. Classroom utilization within elementary school is also expected to increase to 110 percent in 10 years. 

Henry said balancing classroom utilization would not balance future utilization, meaning reassignment would be required again in five to 10 years. 

This scenario would also require neighborhoods to be split, not considering the proximity guiding principle

The second scenario involves establishing a county-wide pre-K center at Central Elementary School. In this case, all current K-5 students at Central Elementary School would be reassigned to Pathways Elementary School. 

However, this scenario does not meet any of the guiding principles, particularly operational efficiency since it would only increase enrollment at Pathways Elementary School. 

The last scenario includes a transportation impact summary which would minimize student travel distance under a new attendance zone and route design. The new attendance zone would also allow Hillsborough Elementary School to use one or two buses for the riders within this new zone. To create more efficiency, these buses could be paired with middle and high school routes. 

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This scenario would meet all of the guiding principles, but stability would depend on how the board’s implements grandfathering for students. 

At the board meeting on Monday, the board agreed that the process was moving too quickly and wanted to slow down in order to hear parent concerns. 

The board will continue to discuss the reassignment plan until Oct. 28, when district staff will make a recommendation for new assignment boundaries. The board is expected to take action on new assignment boundaries on Nov. 25. 

@diane_adame

city@dailytarheel.com