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School Board votes on Tuesday in Elementary School Redistricting: What's it all about?

The SB will be voting on Tuesday to determine what neighborhoods will be changing elementary schools in the fall. What began as a request to move one small neighborhood has turned into a bit more of a production that has sparked a substantial amount of debate. For a full rundown of all the options, with accompanying data and maps, please see the BTW post HERE. Let’s take a quick look at the map to see which neighborhoods are being considered:

There are 4 options being considered by the SB, in all options children are moved to Falmouth Elementary from either Margaret Brent (the England Run neighborhoods represented by the little islands in blue) or Ferry Farm (England Run Pointe.) The chart below shows SCPS current and predicted capacity numbers for all of the area's elementary schools.

As we have noted before, looking at the chart above, neither MBES or FFES seem to be in any dire need for relief. However, this chart reflects numbers from October and a few important changes have occurred since then. First, the enrollment numbers for MBES have ballooned from 898 in October to 925. The school has a capacity of 950 so that means it is currently functioning at 97% of capacity. This unexpected jump is due to "by-right development" in the MBES district. This type of housing development does not require approval by the county, so it is harder to predict how it will affect schools. It is a good bet that when this chart is updated next year, MBES will not be in the green zone in SY 2019 as is currently predicted.

Also, in February the SB approved 2 pre-school classes to be opened at Falmouth Elementary. These numbers are not reflected in the "Pre-K" column above but they are currently running at FES and are using two of the school's previously available classrooms. This fact, and the fact that FES also runs 3 special needs classes with reduced class sizes, mean that the capacity numbers in the chart above (which show a 71% capacity) don't accurately represent the space available at the school.

In order to get to the bottom of this issue, BTW reached out to the community and SB members for some additional information. I was extremely fortunate to be able to have long conversations with Dwayne McOsker, Jr. (George Washington District SB REP), Scott Hirons (Falmouth SB REP) and Michele Goshorn, long-time FES parent and active community member.

It seems appropriate to begin with my conversation with Mr. McOsker because he is the one who initiated this redistricting discussion in the first place. Back in the fall, he asked the SB to consider moving the small community of England Run Pointe to FES from FFES. At the time, he was told that these issues are addressed later in the year and then of course, the high school issue came up as well. Once options for the elementary schools were discussed, MBES had substantially grown and was thrown into the mix. Mr. McOsker has made it clear that he doesn't think MBES should be a part of this discussion, that this redistricting was begun to address FFES and that their issues should not be superseded.

So, why is this move so important to Mr. McOsker? One reason is bus rides. He believes it doesn't make sense to have children travel right past a school with space to accommodate them and make them take a long bus ride to a school much further away. Another reason is the space issue at FFES. FFES is a rather old school built in 1957 and has not yet received long promised renovations like other schools have already gotten, namely FES. Even though they are not at capacity (the school is at 86%,) they do struggle with space issues due to their older design. Unlike some elementary schools, they have lost their computer lab and they have children attending classes in their basement. Fortunately, these are "specials" type rooms, like the math lab, gifted room and reading lab so children are only down there for one hour long periods. There are NOT autism classes in the basement as previously reported but they are in a windowless room on the main floor. Finally, FES is not a Title I school but FES is and Mr. McOsker believes that this group of students, many of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch, would be better served at a school with these extra Title I funds.

This begs the question, what is Title I and why does it make a difference? According to the U.S DoE, the purpose of Title I federal funding is to "provide financial assistance to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards." This money is strictly intended to aid low-income students, NOT special needs students. Mr. McOsker conflated these two things during his comments at the SB meeting but it is important to note that they are completely unrelated.

Here in Stafford, we have 7 elementary schools designated as Title I, which makes them eligible to each receive a portion of the Title I money that comes to Stafford County. The document below, provided by Mr. Hirons, shows the 7 schools highlighted in yellow and their current enrollment numbers. As an aside, highlighted in green are the 14 students who are currently in the Rappahannock Regional Jail, which makes me profoundly sad. I wonder what the schools are required to do for them?

FES and the other 6 schools receive "Targeted" Title I funds instead of "Schoolwide" funds, which means schools must allocate funds to the neediest and most at-risk students and can not utilize the funds for schoolwide programs. This may be why Mr. McOsker believes the ERP students would be better served at FES. He has stated that FFES has never quite qualified for Title I status but the school currently has a free and reduced lunch population of 32%, not much lower than FES' 36% number.

The response from the FES community has been substantial. Michele Goshorn, who has had children at FES for over a decade, acknowledges that there is room at the school but was the first to point out how misleading the capacity numbers are. The 3 special needs classes and 2 pre-K classes take up a lot of the available space, according to Ms. Goshorn, and need to be taken into account when determining how many students can be brought to FES. There is concern that the school might lose it's computer lab, have to relocate it's music room next to the library and could potentially lose it's sensory/physical therapy room used for special needs students. Her position, and that of the school's principal, is that the school currently has 3 classrooms open. This means it could comfortably take around 65 students without making sacrifices. Ms. Goshorn was very clear that it didn't make a difference to the community at large which neighborhood those students came from. The concern at FES is that too many students in general will be moved into the school, not too many from a particular income bracket.

If 65 students is the upper limit, then practically speaking only one of these neighborhoods can be moved to FES. Mr. Hirons believes that the best choice in this scenario is to move the 65 students from the Manor at England Run, the southern blue island that currently attends MBES. The Falmouth SB Rep is very concerned about the exploding population at MBES, that the number of new by-right homes will cause the school to continue to grow over the next couple of years. He also discussed bus route safety as an issue that should be considered. Anyone who has ever traveled Truslow Road knows that it is very dangerous, even after improvements. This road is used to transport the England Run kids to MBES and it is one of the roads with the highest number of bus traffic incidents. In Mr. Hirons view, by selecting Option 3, MBES gets some relief while eliminating a long and dangerous bus route for the Manor students.

There are a few arguments that have been tossed out there but that just don't hold water:

-Some FES parents at the Falmouth public hearing expressed concern that by bringing more students to FES, those students would take precious resources away from current FES students. This is not the way it works; funding, staffing and other resources move with students so an appropriate amount of resources will travel with whichever students go to FES.

-It has been suggested that students across the county have long bus rides and because of this, bus ride times shouldn't be discussed. While it's true that many kids have long rides due to the nature of our county's layout and some wonky districting, it seems rather short-sighted to not fix the issue when possible especially where elementary school kids are concerned. Middle and high schools students are much better equipped to deal with a long bus ride than a 5 year old. I personally think that bus ride times for elementary school students should stay under a certain threshold except when completely unavoidable, although I admit I don't know how feasible that is.

-FES is a Title I school, something that every parent at the Falmouth public hearing pointed out, sometimes more than once. A 36% free and reduced lunch population presents a challenge and taking even more kids in that situation won't be easy. However, as shown on the chart above, there are 7 elementary schools with that status in the county, some with much, much higher percentages of low income students. For example, Widewater has a 45% free and reduced lunch population, Kate Waller Barrett is at almost 49% and Hampton Oaks is at 55%! Each of these schools functions at a population capacity of at least 84%, Widewater is at 91% capacity right now, according to the membership report provided by Mr. Hirons. So, while this fact should be taken into consideration, it is not a reason in and of itself to keep students from being transferred to FES when they are under capacity and other schools are facing over crowding.

What's the best move? To be honest, this redistricting doesn't seem very well thought out to me. Something that no one has raised is the free and reduced numbers at MBES, which is only 20%. That number was much lower in 2011 before the England Run kids moved in and it will go down again if they move out. This bothers me, especially when there are schools with room north of MBES like Rockhill Elementary School, which is currently at 69% capacity. My oldest actually went to Rockhill before MBES opened. Why not move some kids in the western part of the MBES district to Rockhill and keep the England Run kids where they are? It was weird to move them there in the first place but they are there now and they represent a completely different demographic than the rest of the MBES district. The families moving into the new by-right development homes, which must have 3 acres of land each, will not be bringing any more low-income children to MBES. This would be at least a small move towards the "parity" that many parents cried out for during the high school redistricting issue.

Of course, this isn't an option, it's just my personal rantings and ravings. It makes absolutely no sense to take students from one school to relieve it but then over-burden another. Placing over 100 more students at FES, considering the recent addition of the 2 Pre-K classes, is asking too much of the school. This means only 2 feasible options remain, 3 which moves an ER neighborhood from MBES and 4, which moves ERP from FFES. I agree with Mr. Hirons that MBES is facing over-crowding issues that will need to be addressed soon. I also agree with Mr. McOsker that this redistricting initiative shouldn't have anything to do with MBES. I believe that the approach being taken with MBES is the exact band-aid, emergency redistricting that BTW was founded to rail against. The SB should examine redistricting MBES at a later date when other situations have been considered, like a move of students to under-populated Rockhill. If the change just can't wait until the large elementary redistricting coming our way when the new Moncure opens, then do it next year but don't do it until a larger number of options for MBES have been considered.

That just leaves FFES and the question of whether those kids should to be moved. Mr. McOsker has admitted that if the kids are not moved, then the school administration will handle it in the same excellent way they always have. We really have great principals in Stafford County, people, they can make wine out of water. Looking at the map, it is undeniable that these students are bused past one school to go to another. During high school redistricting, this was clearly something the SB wanted to avoid. I am not sure that this fact alone is enough to merit a move. I would suggest doing nothing but that is highly unlikely, someone is going to be moved. Since I think the England Run kids should stay at MBES, if someone must be moved, then I am with Mr. McOsker and would go with Option 4. However, if I had to make a guess, I think Mr. Hirons' choice will win the day and Option 3 will be chosen.

My deepest thanks go out to Mr. Hirons, Mr. McOsker and Ms. Goshorn. I truly appreciate you taking time out of your busy lives to enlighten me on these issues.