Call it the elephant in the classroom.
After three public meetings this month led by West Ada School District staff on redrawing attendance zones to relieve school overcrowding, many parents say a new issue is emerging: Too many kids are getting squeezed into too few high schools, no matter how the lines are drawn.
The school board should table the high school boundary discussion “and focus on passing a bond to build a new high school,” said Ryan Riley, a parent with five children in the district.
For West Ada, this is a math problem. Meridian has five high schools. To make sure that some are not more crowded than others, it has zones from which each school draws students. But over time, growth within and without those zones means that some schools have more students than others and more than they were designed to serve.
This is coming to a head now as the district spends the $96 million bond voters approved last March to construct three new schools and finish up expansion of Meridian High School.
Much of the bond’s focus was south of Interstate 84, where subdivisions are mushrooming. West Ada will build a new middle school and elementary school there to relieve overcrowding at Lake Hazel Middle School and Mary McPherson and Sienna elementaries. The plans to adjust attendance at those schools, worked out by a committee of more than 40 community members, have drawn little public concern at hearings through the district.
Mountain View and Rocky Mountain high schools are another story.
MOUNTAIN VIEW: DIVIDING FRIENDS
Mountain View, near Overland and Eagle roads, is over capacity by 27 percent. More than 500 students are expected to be shifted to Meridian or Centennial high schools under a proposed boundary plan.
An initial proposal would have moved many students who now attend Mountain View and Rocky Mountain, prompting concerns from parents about their kids not getting to complete high school where they started.
West Ada’s boundary committee is now recommending that all students can stay in the high schools they are attending. New boundaries would affect students who enter next fall.
But that plan doesn’t sit will with parents such as Judy McKay, who bought property 13 years ago in what was then the new Bear Creek subdivision west of Meridian Road. They bought there partly because it was in the Mountain View zone.
McKay’s eighth-grade daughter’s friends and classmates live east of Meridian Road, a main boundary that could determine who goes to Mountain View versus Meridian High. Her daughter’s friends would stay at Mountain View when she goes to Meridian.
“My daughter is frustrated,” McKay said.
McKay likes Mountain View because it allows students to take classes revolving around a specific interest area, such as engineering. And she’s concerned about new subdivisions that came along after Bear Creek pushing her out of the school that she wants for her children.
Moreover, she said, virtually every high school will be overcrowded when the new boundaries are approved and the students moved. “You need a new high school,” she said.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN: STILL CROWDED
Rocky Mountain High School is 27 percent over capacity. The adjusted zones would shift 348 students, mostly to Meridian High.
The latest version of the plan would leave Mountain View 19 percent over capacity, Rocky Mountain 21 percent over capacity, and Centennial and Eagle slightly above or near capacity. The expanded Meridian High School would be roughly 300 students — 13 percent — under capacity.
Riley has proposed a plan he said better meets the concerns of balanced enrollment among schools. He has a petition on his website asking people to endorse it.
But more importantly, Riley said, the district’s plan doesn’t equalize enrollment at the high schools and doesn’t keep neighborhoods together, echoing a common concern from parents at the public meetings.
He asks: Why is the district expanding Meridian High School and leaving 300 empty seats?
District officials say the plan for Meridian High was mainly to upgrade the quality of the school so its classrooms and labs are on par with other schools. But it’s in an area slated for fast growth that could bring many students to the school in the next few years.
TIME FOR NEW HIGH SCHOOL?
Beyond the immediate concern of drawing lines, parents say they see a bigger issue: the need for a new school.
District officials see the point. In a district slated to grow 500 to 1,000 students a year, the number of high school students would increase by 150 to 300 annually, West Ada spokesman Eric Exline said: “We will have to build five new high schools” over many years.
Clint Shiflet is a parent who has served on the boundary committee and has pored over the numbers. The figures tell him that a bond measure to pay for a new high school can’t be far off: “I think in 2017 or 2018, you’ve got to go to the voters with a bond.”
The issues to consider are location, timing and money.
Location: One possibility is north or south of the interstate in the district’s west side, where much of the growth is happening. But no one has taken a careful look at that option yet.
Timing: If a school bond were passed this year, a school could open in 2019.
Money: West Ada builds new schools when voters approve bond measures. But those require a steep two-thirds majority to pass. And voters are most likely to support bonds when schools are crammed with students. A recent example: Voters backed the new Victory Middle School on Stoddard Road in March after nearby Lake Hazel Middle School was more than 400 students beyond capacity.
But if a new high school opened in 2019, it could conceivably be in an area with 950 high school students to accommodate, according to tentative district projections. That would be enough to fill about half a high school. The question is would voters be willing to pay for a new high school that isn’t full the day it opens, Exline said.
The school board will review the committee’s proposed boundaries at a meeting on Feb. 9. Riley expects the trustees to hear an appeal for a new high school. He said he plans to tell the board that a new high school is central to any redistricting plan.
The board needs to look “at the big picture,” Riley said.
West Ada’s high schools
Student count after proposed boundary