by Rachel Minske
The Elk River Area School Board approved attendance boundary changes Dec. 12 that would help the district deal with overcrowding concerns in some buildings beginning at the start of the 2017-18 school year.
The changes were recommended by the community member-based Facilities Usage Committee, which has worked to create options for the district for the last several months. Its process has included lengthy meetings, a series of surveys, public meetings and one final meeting to assemble its final recommendations.
Boundary decisions made for Otsego E-8, Twin Lakes
The board approved an option (known as Option B in the southern area proposals) for some of the elementary middle schools in Otsego and Rogers. Under the plan, crowding issues at Rogers Middle School and Rogers and Otsego Elementary schools would be relieved by moving all Otsego attendance area into the soon-to-be Otsego E-8 school over a three-year phased transition. The new school is scheduled to open for the 2017-18 school year.
In its first year, the new school would open as an E-6 school only and seventh- and eighth-grade students would remain at Rogers Middle School. In the school’s second year, it would operate as an E-7 school with eighth-graders at Rogers Middle School. And, in its third year, all E-8 and Otsego Elementary K-8 students would attend the school at the E-8 building.
All incoming students in the Otsego Elementary and Otsego E-8 boundary entering sixth grade in the 2017-18 year will participate at the E-8 building for their middle school years, under this option.
Under this option, additional busing will be needed for two years, Rogers Middle School would remain over capacity in its first year, and Hassan Elementary School would remain slightly over capacity.
Option C got support for its more aggressive approach
After some discussion, the board approved “Option C” for the central area proposal, with a 5-1 vote. School Board Member Sue Farber voted against the proposal.
Former Chairwoman of the board Holly Thompson, who stepped down earlier this year due to a personal reason, was absent from both the Dec. 5 work session to talk about the proposals and the regular board meeting on Dec. 12.
In an effort to provide the most capacity to Twin Lakes, “Option C” calls for moving 183 students out of Twin Lakes Elementary School and 63 out of Parker. It would move 91 students into Parker and 155 into Lincoln. Also under the plan, 79 students would move from Salk to VandenBerge at the middle school level.
This option was the committee’s preference and appears to be stable over time, even with growth in the district’s central area, according to city documents.
School Board Member Shane Steinbrecher addressed the difficult nature of the decisions.
“This is hard, when you move boundaries,” he said.
During the Dec. 12 board meeting, School Board Member Gregg Peppin said he wished “boundary adjustment” would have been added to committee’s name. The director asked if it would be possible to have more time to make a decision, but Director of Community Engagement and Community Education Cory Franson said Dec. 12 was an absolute deadline to ensure families would be notified of the changes.
Implications of the central area decision
Under Option C, the schools should be at or below capacity until the 2019-20 school year, Franson said.
“One of the other recommendations (from the committee) was that the board re-evaluate its process for overcapacity,” Franson said of dealing with crowding concerns in the future.
However, this option also moves the highest number of students.
One issue that was discussed at length amongst committee members was how boundary changes would affect school demographics as it relates to the number of students receiving free and reduced lunches.
No schools should be adversely affected, based on the recommendations, Franson said. The central part of the district “almost improved,” meaning the percentage of students in a building receiving free or reduced lunch either stayed the same or decreased.
Striking a nerve
Farber, the sole School Board member who voted against Option C for the central boundary area, cited that those families who would have to change schools were not properly warned as a reason for voting in opposition. However, other board members said those families were warned, they just weren’t told exactly which building their student would be moving to.
Advocating for a group of parents is the reason Farber gave for her use of “badly chosen words in a very passionate meeting.” The director came under fire during the open forum portion of the Dec. 12 School Board meeting for comments she made during a work session a week before.
At the meeting, two community members came forward to express their dissatisfaction with comments made by Farber during a work session meeting Dec. 5, calling on her to apologize.
Farber was quoted in a Star News article as questioning the relocation of students of “a high-performing school” to “arguably the lowest performing school,” referencing proposals to move Twin Lakes students to Lincoln.
“This is not how I saw my last meeting going, and regardless of that, it’s not how I saw any meeting going,” said Farber, audibly upset, in a public apology to the community.
Farber said she was advocating for a group of parents when she made those comments and ultimately used her words “poorly.”
Farber and fellow School Board Member Dan Hunt were both recognized that evening by the board for their years of service. Farber, who has served on the board for 12 years, and Hunt, who has served for four, did not seek re-election this fall and will soon step down from their posts as new members take their places.
“Last week, two sentences were a snapshot in time,” she said. “They don’t define how I feel about Lincoln. I apologize from the bottom of my heart.”
Farber said her own children attended Lincoln Elementary School.
“It is a great school,” she said.
Comments about the performance of students at Elk River elementary schools made by Hunt during the Dec. 5 work session were also scrutinized by community members at the board meeting.
About the process
The approved boundary changes have been in the works for some time.
The project stemmed from a need to address space concerns within the district. For example, school district documents show Twin Lakes Elementary School is at 104 percent capacity – there are 807 students in a building that can house 775.
Further, district officials have said as populations continue to grow in the four communities that comprise the Elk River Area School District, schools are likely to feel the impact.
To help steer the district through the process of making the changes, the School Board selected Minnesota-based consulting group TeamWorks International in the spring.
In June, the district requested applications from the community to serve on the Facilities Usage Committee. Of the 82 applicants for the committee, 35 were selected, many of them being parents to students in the district.
The board met with district administrators and TeamWorks International throughout the summer to set the foundation for the committee’s work, and over the last few months, committee members have gathered to discuss and brainstorm, too. Committee members pored over hundreds of pages in documentation and spent about 36 hours in meetings studying data, concepts and possible resolutions.
Input from the community was also an important part of the process. Three times throughout the project, the committee compiled its ideas and sent them out to the community in the form of surveys.
During the first round of surveys, 894 responses were received. In the second round, 1,148 responses were received, and 572 responses were received in the third round.
Public meetings were also held in October and November, but they yielded far less participation than the online surveys. A meeting at Otsego Elementary School in mid-October saw the highest participation with 28 attendees.
Franson said the committee is officially done with its work on this project, but its recommendations will appear before the board again.
In addition to its recommendations about boundary changes within the district, the committee also examined facilities like parking lots, pick-up and drop-off locations, fields and gymnasiums and safety, among other things.
The committee has made consultative statements about facility-related issues and now the district’s administrative staff will examine how to make the recommendations feasible.
There is no timeline set for when the School Board will review those consultative statements and the forthcoming work by administrative staff, Franson said.
Tour your new school
Affected students and families that will be moved are expected to receive a letter informing them of their new school building assignment no later than Dec. 22. This letter will include information on the available options for families.
Those students and families transitioning into new buildings are encouraged to attend a meet-and-greet to see the building and meet the principal. The following dates are scheduled:
•VandenBerge Middle School: 7 p.m. Jan. 12.
•Otsego E-8 meeting (held at Otsego Elementary School): 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7.
•Lincoln Elementary School: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 9.
•Parker Elementary School: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16.