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Redraw school zones or build?
BOE to look at enrollment imbalance in 2020
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As 2020 approaches, the Bulloch County school system’s central office staff and the Board of Education are preparing to seek solutions to a recurrent problem: some schools are filled to capacity while others have underused or empty classrooms.

Next the school leaders will name a committee of residents from throughout the county to develop a plan to propose to the superintendent, who would in turn make a recommendation to the elected board.

The current intent is for the board to make a final decision about school zone boundaries by Nov. 12, 2020, for implementation by Aug. 1, 2021. Between those dates, the school system leadership would make preparations for bus routes and any short-term facilities, such as temporary classrooms, and could begin planning for any buildings or expansions.


Capacity imbalance

“If you look at all of our schools together we have a sizeable excess capacity, but then when you focus on some specific schools, some have a lot of excess capacity and some are very close to their capacity,” said Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Troy Brown.

For example, Langston Chapel Elementary School on Day 10 of the current school year had 656 children enrolled, just four short of its 100% capacity of 660 students. Meanwhile, Sallie Zetterower Elementary School, with a capacity of 840 students, had 737 enrolled but room for 103 more, and Mill Creek Elementary School, with a capacity of 680 students, had 592 enrolled, but room for 88 more.

Distant from those schools, Stilson Elementary School had 410 students on the 10th day, and so at that point had one-third of its expected capacity of 620 students remaining. But the other elementary schools in the Southeast Bulloch area were much closer to full. Brooklet Elementary School with 748 students on the 10th day and a capacity of 780, while Nevils Elementary School had 491 students enrolled and a capacity for 540.

All of these numbers are from a chart Brown presented during the Nov. 21 Board of Education work session.


Forming committee

Brown and Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson presented a timeline beginning with naming the community committee. Wilson asked each of the eight elected Board of Education members to nominate one resident of his or her district by Dec. 10.

Committee members will be asked to consider the effect that any changes will have on taxes. They will also need to work out how changes to the number of students at particular schools affect other schools, as students advance from elementary school to middle school to high school.

Overall, the 15-campus school system has some room for growth.

Bulloch County Schools' full-time-equivalent enrollment, as of the Oct. 1 state-required FTE count, was 10,902.

The individual 10th-day school enrollment numbers Brown cited in his chart totaled 10,822 students. He did not tally the school capacities in his chart, but they add up to a capacity of 12,407 students.

However, the immediate issue is not the school system’s total capacity, but the distribution of students among individual schools at each grade level – elementary, middle and high.


Calculating capacity

Brown’s chart used “100% utilization” capacity maximums for elementary schools but showed only 80% utilization as the standard for high schools. In other words, only 80% of a middle or high school’s classrooms regular classrooms are expected to be used by students at any given time.

The reason, he explained, has to do with where teachers work during their daily planning period.

In middle and high schools, teachers remain in their classrooms for planning, while students are in other classes. So in current practice, each regular classroom is empty of students for about one-fifth of the day.

But at elementary schools, all regular classrooms typically remain available for student instruction throughout the day.

As also indicated in Brown’s chart, a few classrooms at each elementary and middle school are reserved for special purposes. This includes classrooms set aside as special education resource rooms, for English instruction to students learning it as a second language, and for intervention and Quest classes.

The middle and elementary schools have one to four such set-aside classrooms each that are not used in the rotation of regular classes.

For example, Portal Elementary School has two set-aside classrooms. When these are subtracted from its 26 classrooms, PES has 24 available “standard instructional units,” which multiplied by an average elementary school class size of 20 students gives an expected capacity of 480 students. Portal Elementary had 381 students enrolled as of the 10th day.

Average class sizes of 23 students for middle schools and 26 students for high schools were used in figuring their capacities. No reserved classrooms were subtracted for high schools.


More than 20 years

Official attendance zones have not been altered in more than 20 years,

 “We have not touched true attendance zones since 1997, ’98, somewhere along in there,” Wilson said in an interview after the Nov. 21 meeting.

A few years ago, school system officials drew some new “transportation zone” lines to relieve imbalances between a few Statesboro-area elementary schools.

Announced as a temporary fix, this meant that bus routes were changed so that students in border areas of a few zones were transported to a different school. Parents in those areas could choose between the two schools, but had to provide their own transportation if they wanted their children to attend the original attendance-zoned school.

But official attendance zone lines were not redrawn.


A few options

Even now, besides school boundary changes, options to be considered include new school buildings, expansion of existing buildings, use of temporary classrooms, and possibly “other options that have not yet been identified,” Wilson indicated during the work session.

“What we’re looking for is for me to bring a recommendation to this board, by Sept.  1, 2020, for a plan on how to balance school capacity in this district, and what I mean by that is making sure we don’t have some schools  empty and some overcrowded. …,” he said afterward. “Now, what’s going to come out of that, I don’t know.”

He plans to ask the committee to bring him a proposal by May 1 so that school system officials will have several months to look into the details before his recommendation to the board. In addition to the eight community members from the school board districts and himself, Brown proposed to include a planner familiar with growth patterns within the county from the county commissioners’ staff on this “boundary planning committee.”


Least-expensive option

“The least expensive in terms of monetary expense is to go for a boundary change, but to tweak boundaries and tell people their children need to go somewhere else, that’s a reality that’s going to be very difficult to come to in a community like ours that’s so closely knit,” Wilson said. “But again, it’s a responsible conversation to have.”

Adding classrooms to a school would be at least an 18-month process, “if you were very intentional about moving forward,” he said.

The school system might emerge with some “hybrid options,” adjusting zones longer-term while choosing alternatives in the short-run, he said.

“Anything possible could come out of this, so we’re going to wait and provide as much information as we can in the process,” Wilson said.

Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.


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