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September 30, 2014

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Zoning issues rear their head again for School District

Assigning students to different campuses is gut-wrenching for administrators, communities and especially families

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For all the hot-button educational issues debated at school board meetings, nothing is as sure to bring out a crowd of parents than to tell them that their children might be assigned to a different campus.

It’s an issue you won’t hear much about — much less care about — until it involves your family. And then you care a lot, and battle lines are drawn.

Such is the prospect tonight when the Clark County School Board discusses the enrollment footprints for four elementary schools that will open in August to relieve overcrowded campuses — Shirley and Bill Wallin in Anthem Highlands, Evelyn Stuckey in Southern Highlands, and Vincent Triggs and Ruby Duncan, both in North Las Vegas.

You might think the slowdown in student enrollment growth — enrollment actually declined in 2009 — would bring relief from the annual zoning nightmare. But in fact, the Clark County School District expects even more anguished and angry families in coming years, as it shuffles seats to fine-tune the enrollment equilibrium. And unlike much of the past 10 years, the district will be asking more students to move among existing schools versus offering the lure of a bright, shiny new campus.

Arranging and rearranging attendance boundaries was a constant exercise during the district’s boom years, when ground was broken on a new school site every month. Reassigning students from their schools to new schools was an excruciating exercise for the district and parents alike, and there was no relief, no way to avoid it.

But this fall marks the completion of the district’s 1998 capital campaign, which has built more than 100 schools with help from a voter-approved $3.5 billion bond measure. The final four campuses open in August. When the 2011-12 academic year begins, it will be the first time in 16 years that the district will not have a new school.

Reconciling the shifting equation of student enrollment may be the ultimate calculus problem facing the district.

For instance, Wallin Elementary will open in August to alleviate overcrowding at surrounding campuses in Henderson’s Anthem Highlands.

One plan would move 500 students from the crowded Elise Wolff Elementary. But that will leave Wolff with empty seats, so those might be filled in a year by students attending the crowded Frank Lamping Elementary. (Lamping students can move in August if they want.)

Parents at top-achieving Wolff say removing 500 students — and at least 17 teachers — this fall, only to rebuild the enrollment with Lamping students and hire teachers in a year will hurt its academic programs.

Complicating matters: The district is planning to launch a school-choice initiative in 2011 that would allow students to apply to attend any campus with open seats. Based on those plans, Wolff could also see its numbers jump, requiring more teachers be hired.

Such decisions also have to be reconciled with a school’s geographic identity, a task that can prove as challenging as walking a tightrope. Students may be assigned to a school not because it is closest to their home address, but to promote the district’s goal of having socioeconomically diverse campuses.

Because rezoning has become the norm rather than the exception, the district has discouraged the argument that a campus “belongs” to a particular neighborhood. At the same time, schools push for increased involvement by parents and families.

Whenever the district rezones schools, there’s always drama over who is perceived as winning or losing the battle. This year’s fight over Lamping Elementary has been particularly contentious, amid allegations by critics that parents living in the wealthy enclave of Anthem Country Club are demanding an unfair degree of protection from being reassigned to another school.

Such allegations are unfair, said Sandy Miller, wife of former Gov. Bob Miller, who has been active at Lamping since her daughter enrolled there in 1999. In reality, Miller said, her neighbors at Anthem Country Club are asking for the same consideration anyone should receive — the right “to stay at a school they are highly invested in.”

One reason Lamping is one of the district’s top schools is the high level of involvement by parents, grandparents and extended families, many of whom live in Anthem Country Club, Miller said.

She suggested the district make Wolff a nine-month school, which might be a more attractive option to some families who dislike the year-round calendar at Lamping. There could be other families who would want to follow Michael O’Dowd, former principal of Lamping, to his new job at Wallin, Miller said.

But Sharon Dattoli, the district’s zoning director, said making Wolff a nine-month school isn’t an option because the district needs to assign enough students to the campus to reduce overcrowding at Lamping.

And although Wallin will open as a nine-month school, the district projects it will need to go year-round within two to three years. It wouldn’t be fair to promise families a nine-month calendar in exchange for voluntarily leaving Lamping, Dattoli said.

School Board Vice President Carolyn Edwards, a past chairwoman of the zoning advisory commission, said she’s in favor of “phasing,” which means students who are currently assigned to a school would be able to finish out their time there, while only new students would be affected by proposed changes to boundary lines. That’s what she plans to propose tonight when the discussion shifts to boundary recommendations for Foothill, Coronado and Green Valley high schools, also sources of significant controversy and concern.

“The downturn is an opportunity to step back and look at how we zone,” Edwards said. “This may be our chance to come up with some more family-friendly options.”

Dattoli agreed, but noted “we might not be moving as many children as we have in the past, but we’re still going to have to deal with these issues. And it’s still going to be very painful, and we’re probably not going to make everyone happy.”

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