The Wayne County Board of Education is moving forward with redistricting following a Thursday vote to adopt a realignment model used by Cabarrus County Schools.
Plans are in the works to hold meetings in the summer that will include public participation in the process.
The board met for more than two hours with Matthew Cropper, president of Ohio-based Cropper GIS Consulting, which has handled rezoning and redistricting projects all over the United States. Most recent examples in North Carolina have included Union and Cabarrus counties, with work starting soon in New Hanover County.
There are five phases to the process, he told the board — data collection, analysis, criteria and planning team development, baseline options and committee/public meetings. Cropper has been gathering information on attendance boundaries, school capacity and residential data.
Now it’s up to the board to set priorities for criteria to be used in making decisions, Cropper said.
Several board members expressed concerns about how the process will work in Wayne County.
Board member Len Henderson raised the issue of consideration being given to current facilities and the district’s master plan.
Board member Rick Pridgen asked whether there would be leeway given along the way to address changes or updates.
And there are still concerns about aging buildings and mobile units that still dot the landscape on school campuses around the county to alleviate overcrowding.
Not to mention the looming issue that will not go away — money.
“How do you address districts such as ours?” Chairman Chris West said. “All this data is great, the plan is great, the vision is great. But for a school district that’s been underfunded for so many years. I would love to go out, we probably could spend $160 million in this county to bring this education system and the facilities up to par.
“We’ve been underfunded for so many years. One reason we have so many older buildings that are in dire need of all kinds of construction issues, updates, whatever, but at the end of the day we don’t have the funding — what do you tell a district that doesn’t get the money they need to support the facilities?”
Cropper said it is best to work off objectives that are known rather than ones that are speculative. He added that it is not uncommon to have boundaries that have not been changed in decades — sometimes 50 or 60 years — but it is important to re-evaluate the district lines.
Superintendent Michael Dunsmore piggybacked on the frustration expressed by West, citing several challenges faced by the district, such as transportation.
“Equity of facilities is a huge issue in this county,” Dunsmore said. “As Mr. West said, if you don’t have the funding, does shifting attendance lines do more harm to that?
“If we start shifting attendance lines, students may be shifted from a brand new building to an old building or vice versa. That puts a real spotlight when you start moving families and communities.”
Cropper said that is something his company sees on a daily basis, calling it a “reality of the situation.”
“You only have a finite amount of dollars, and you have to work with the space that you have,” he said. “What I would say is to do plans for rezoning to help accomplish the objectives and help address existing issues that need to be addressed.”
“You may want to do something that has a minimal impact. You may not want to do a comprehensive redistricting or rezoning that moves thousands and thousands of kids if you’re looking at making changes to your facilities in the next five years.”
Part of the dilemma, Dunsmore noted, is that the district has to answer to its funding fathers, which led to pointing out the absence of county representation at the meeting.
“Obviously the capital improvements are part of our work with the county, and it’s unfortunate they’re not here,” Dunsmore said.
West said he also wants attention to be paid to public sentiment.
While Cropper expressed a desire to be transparent and have provisions in place in the plans, including a planning team that would be inclusive of administration, staff and local representation, he said there will also be a web page and access materials, as well as an opportunity to solicit feedback from residents and public engagement sessions.
“We don’t know how they’re going to react,” West told Cropper. “Emotions are going to be high. You have a lot more confidence that we’re going to be able to sell this to the public.”
A succession of meetings is expected to be announced during the summer months, with opportunities for feedback throughout the process. West said that needs to happen because there is a very real possibility this is going to be “an uphill battle.”
“It’s probably only going to be about 25 percent of the public that will be affected by (redistricting) in the end anyway, maybe even less than that,” Pridgen said.
“Whatever percent, they need to have all the information they can have,” West said.
Cropper said there is no way to please everyone, no matter what the district decides.
“This isn’t designed to make everybody happy — it’s designed to accomplish our task,” he said.
To expedite the step of establishing criteria for what would best serve Wayne County, Henderson and board member Jennifer Strickland weighed between recommending the Union County or Cabarrus County model.
The main difference is that the Cabarrus criteria included two things which held an appeal — its approach to “grandfathering” and consideration of economic and ethnic diversity. The model calls for allowing students in grades 5 and 8 to remain at their current school for the first year of realignment, with the family providing transportation. Rising seniors could also complete their senior year at their base school.
Cropper said he does not like to have grandfathering as part of the criteria, but it somehow always makes its way to the list.
Henderson said he favors eliminating the grandfather clause until the board has time to discuss and come to consensus. He made a motion to adopt the Cabarrus model, which was seconded by Strickland.
It was voted down 4-3, with only Henderson, Pridgen and Strickland in favor.
Board member Patricia Burden suggested keeping the grandfather clause in but modifying it to contain the words “exit grades” and removing the reference about 12th-graders.
That motion passed 6-1. Henderson abstained, which counts as an affirmative vote.