Redrawing attendance zones is a task Bulloch County Schools officials are approaching cautiously but say can no longer be delayed for some schools. The zones decide which schools students attend, or at least where a free school bus ride will take them.
“When addressing something as potentially massive as zoning, we need to define the problem or issue which we are trying to resolve,” Paul Webb, the school system’s chief operations officer, said in beginning his Feb. 12 presentation to the Board of Education.
The board, he said, needs to decide whether zoning will solely address “school capacity” by balancing how completely the various schools are filled with students, or whether other concerns need to be addressed.
One of those concerns is travel distance, or as Webb explained it, “How far from a school is too far for a student to travel?”
Bulloch County’s tradition of community schools suggests limits on how far parents or buses should have to transport students, Superintendent Charles Wilson said. But he told board members that one concern or the other will have to be given priority.
“One has to be primary and the other secondary,” Wilson said. “Are we trying to balance the capacities of our schools or are we trying to maintain travel distance …?”
Classrooms: empty and full
Over the past 15 years, Bulloch County has spent tens of millions of dollars on school construction. Not all of the more than $250 million from three Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendums and accompanying state funding has gone to building classroom facilities, but most of the older schools have been replaced or rebuilt.
To make room for future students, new schools were built larger than those they replaced. However, attendance lines have not been redrawn to distribute students evenly.
School officials started a discussion of zoning between the opening of the new Sallie Zetterower Elementary School complex in 2011 and the new Mattie Lively Elementary in 2012. But board members at the time tabled the proposal, which was never completed.
The Mattie Lively and Sallie Z. schools were designed, according to a state capacity formula, for 850 students each. Both still have unused classrooms.
Mattie Lively’s full-time equivalent, or FTE, student count in October was 610, or about 72 percent of its projected capacity. Sallie Z. had 519 students, or only 61 percent of its capacity.
Meanwhile, Langston Chapel Elementary School is full. Based on its capacity of about 790 students, which Webb cited, LCES was at 99 percent capacity with its October count of 785 students.
The school system uses a formula for school capacity based on instructional units — numbers of classrooms per school — multiplied by class size, which may not match other capacity estimates, such as those used by architects, said Hayley Greene, the Bulloch County Schools’ public relations specialist.
When Webb met with a Georgia Department of Education facilities specialist last week, one of the things they planned to talk about, Greene said, was which capacity formula is most accurate.
Within-county school choice, established in Georgia law by House Bill 251 in 2009, complicates zoning by making enrollment more fluid. Parents can enroll their children at any public school in the county that has the appropriate grade level, if they apply and the school has room for them.
However, as Webb points out, parents must provide transportation if they choose a school other than their zoned school, which is where the school bus will take students from their neighborhood.
In Bulloch County, parents who want their children assigned to a different school must apply by May 1 for the following school year. Once accepted, the student can continue to attend the out-of-zone school, but has to reapply to go from an elementary school to its assigned middle school, for example.
A lottery process is used when applications exceed the number of seats available.
The Bulloch County Schools also grant hardship transfers, which not all school districts offer. Parents submit an application citing reasons such as services not offered in the zoned school, a medical issue or other extenuating circumstances. Webb and the principals of the zoned school and the requested school serve as a committee to decide whether to grant the request.
Because the zones do not strictly assign a school that students must attend, officials have been referring to them sometimes as “transportation zones.” This was the term Wilson used for the short-term reassigning of some attendance lines that Webb is working on to present to the board in March.
This short-term phase should alleviate crowding at Langston Chapel Elementary by reassigning some of its students to other elementary schools for next school year, Webb said. Students may also be shifted out of some other schools, depending on a threshold the board chooses.
“There are a few others that are in the 80 to 85 percent capacity range,” Webb said. “So one of the things that we’ll be finding out from the board is, what is acceptable capacity, and if schools other than Langston Chapel Elementary need to be looked at, then we’ll have a plan to do that as well.”
In a January strategy session and their most recent meeting, Wilson and board members mentioned portable classrooms as an undesirable alternative to the short-term zoning changes.
“We need to do something now, going into next year, so we’re not having to look at bringing mobile units into schools,” Wilson said.
But officials are also talking about a longer-term redrawing of zones, possibly affecting schools throughout the county.
For this, the Board of Education could either seek staff-created proposals or form a board member-led committee, Webb suggested.
It will not be quick or easy, Wilson told the board.
“We have a lot of things to consider…” he said. “We have to not only notify the public, but we may have some massive staffing decisions in terms of moving people around. There’s a lot to go into this that, 12 to 18 months can get real short real fast in this process.”
Meanwhile, the Bulloch County school system grows by about 200 students per year, according to Greene. As of the Oct. 7 count, the 15 schools had 10,185 students, according to the state Department of Education report available at https://app3.doe.k12.ga.us.