Sunday, October 2, 2022

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Divided school board willing to re-open discussion about 2017 redistricting plan to take effect in 2023

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Alamance-Burlington school board members voted 5-2 this week – following nearly two hours of discussion – to revisit the high school redistricting plan that was unanimously adopted in January 2017.

The high school redistricting plan calls for closing Cummings and Graham High schools as comprehensive high schools and converting them into a specialty school of the arts and skilled trades academy/early college, respectively. The specialty school of the arts at Cummings High School would be for grades six through 12; the skilled trades academy/early college at Graham High School would be for grades nine through 12.

The 2017 high school redistricting plan also divided the four existing high schools (Eastern, Southern, Williams, and Western) and the future high school into five attendance zones.

The 2017 plan split the high schools into five attendance zones: Eastern, Southern, Williams, Western, and the new high school; the two specialty schools would have no attendance boundaries.

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ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler, who took over in July, told school board members this week that – given limited interest in enrolling at the two specialty schools, existing staffing challenges, and the potential financial implications – he thinks Cummings and Graham High schools should continue operating as comprehensive high schools.

The 2017 redistricting plan had been predicated on construction of the county’s seventh high school – now named Southeast High School and scheduled to open for the 2023-24 school year – to ease overcrowding at Eastern and Southern High Schools.

The construction of Southeast High School and renovations and/expansions to the six existing high schools are being funded by the $150 million bond package that voters approved for ABSS in November 2018.

Butler pointed this week to an apparent lack of interest in enrolling at the two specialty schools, as well as potential difficulty in hiring staff for the two specialty schools for the 2023-24 school year (see related story, this edition). Like its counterparts across the state, ABSS has struggled to fill more than 100 teaching vacancies for the current school year that began August 29.

Slated to take effect for the 2023-24 school year, the high school redistricting plan had been unanimously adopted in 2017 by three current school board members (Allison Gant, Tony Rose, and Patsy Simpson) and four former members (Brian Feeley, Mark Payne, Steve Van Pelt, and Pam Thompson), under the direction of then-superintendent Dr. Bill Harrison.

This week, three school board members voted 5-2 to “continue the conversation” about the 2017 high school redistricting plan; two voted reluctantly to do so; and two voted against revisiting it.

Voting to continue the conversation were: Chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves and board members Ryan Bowden and Donna Westbrooks, all of whom were elected in November 2020. Vice chairman Patsy Simpson and school board member Allison Gant voted reluctantly to continue the discussion, while emphasizing that they want specific, detailed information about the specialty programs and other practical concerns surrounding implementation of the high school redistricting plan. Voting to end the conversation were Rose and fellow school board member Wayne Beam, who wasn’t on the board when the redistricting plan was adopted in January 2017.

[Story continues below quotes.]

“I think you and I are on the same page [he told school board member Patsy Simpson]. You were wanting to fast-track it, and I was wanting to ease into it.  I think over time we will change the reputation of Cummings and Graham.  I’m just here to give you the options, but I want to go on record: I do think seven high schools is the way to go…I’m willing to do whatever this board says, majority-wise, but waiting and kicking the can is not an option.”

– ABSS supt. Dr. Dain Butler

 

“We spent such an enormous amount of time, and as we all know, this is going to be one of the most difficult duties that you as a superintendent and as a board [will have] so I have serious reservations about starting over.  We made a promise.  We went out to the public and sold them on a bond referendum, based upon an approved plan, the numbers – all of that was deliberated.  It was the worst time, I think, being on this board because it was very deliberate.  And now all this is changing.”

– school board vice chairman  Patsy Simpson

 

“To follow what was agreed on, we are literally taking Graham and Cummings, 1,960 students, and putting them in five high schools.  I’m all about honoring what we agreed to with the public.  We have 500 more students in high school that what the last study projected.  I’m all about the specialty programs, but if we don’t have the students to fill those seats, I don’t know that that’s the best use of our taxpayer dollars.”

– school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves

“We spent such an enormous amount of time, and as we all know, this is going to be one of the most difficult duties that you as a superintendent and as a board [will have] so I have serious reservations about starting over,” Simpson said Tuesday afternoon. “We made a promise. We went out to the public and sold them on a bond referendum, based upon an approved plan, the numbers – all of that was deliberated. It was the worst time, I think, being on this board because it was very deliberate. And now all this is changing.

“I feel sorry for Dr. Butler because, as many of you know, I have asked – over and over, whether it was through [board member] comments or submitting my concerns through various chairs we’ve had over the years – where’s the redistricting,” Simpson added. “That was under Dr. Harrison; no one touched this. How are we going to get this accomplished, if we start over, in 11 months, if it took us two years to [get this far]?” The vice chairman also pointed out that the school board, administration, and community had known when it was adopted that the high school redistricting plan was to take effect for 2023-24.

“How many kids, do you think, will leave the five high schools voluntarily to go to Graham and Cummings?” Butler asked the board Tuesday afternoon.

“I would encourage the board to be very aware of what the public was sold. I think you would want to be very intentional to include the public… I’m not opposed to coming up with a new plan, as long as we have public input. I think we have to nail down some things; I’d like to get a few more answers, as well.”

– school board member Allison Gant

Gant, for her part, stressed what she sees is a need to involve the public on any potential changes.

“I would encourage the board to be very aware of what the public was sold,” she said Tuesday. “I think you would want to be very intentional to include the public… I’m not opposed to coming up with a new plan, as long as we have public input. I think we have to nail down some things; I’d like to get a few more answers, as well.”

“To follow what was agreed on, we are literally taking Graham and Cummings, 1,960 students, and putting them in five high schools,” Ellington-Graves countered. “I’m all about honoring what we agreed to with the public. We have 500 more students in high school that what the last study projected.”

The last capacity study completed for ABSS in October 2020 had projected high school enrollment at 6,589 students for the 2022-23 school year, Ellington-Graves said Tuesday afternoon. Figures that were presented during Tuesday’s work session showed that 7,073 students are currently enrolled at the six ABSS high schools (see accompanying chart).

“I’m all about the specialty programs, but if we don’t have the students to fill those seats, I don’t know that that’s the best use of our taxpayer dollars,” the chairman added. “I think we need to be very realistic with ourselves and the public…how do we make those two specialty schools [successful], because if we don’t, we’re going to have two empty schools.” (See related story, this edition.)

For her part, Simpson said, “The projections you have now are probably not reflective of what it’s going to be even a year from now. I’m saying, you can’t just react based on numbers. The numbers have always changed, and they will change again, in terms of capacity. You put in the programs that everybody is asking for now: the pre-collegiate academy, the [International Baccalaureate] program, the finance academy.

“When we asked about specialty programs, we got the general [description],” Simpson recalled this week. “When we asked for detailed information, we never got it. Nobody wanted to discuss this. That’s why I feel bad for [Dr. Butler and his] staff – because here we are six or seven years later, trying to get the details.

“You take the most popular programs we have in this county and distribute [them] to those schools,” Simpson added. “If they want it, they will go. We will catch hell…the reputation we have in this county is they don’t want to go to ‘those schools.’ Our objective was to balance out students based on socioeconomics. There’s no new construction that’s going to go on in the Cummings zone. Nobody is willing to [do] what it’s going to take to make this happen.”

“I think you and I are on the same page,” Butler responded. “You were wanting to fast-track it, and I was wanting to ease into it. I think over time we will change the reputation of Cummings and Graham.” The superintendent also said it creates a “big risk” with finances, should those specialty schools fail. “I’m just here to give you the options, but I want to go on record: I do think seven high schools is the way to go.”

Nevertheless, Butler added, “If the board wants us to move those [specialty programs], we’ll make it happen…I’m willing to do whatever this board says, majority-wise, but waiting and kicking the can is not an option.”

“I am concerned with promises that were made. I’m all about having more open discussion about it.  At the same time, being a Cummings grad and working at Graham for 20 years, I love those communities.  I definitely think we need to have more discussion, as well.”

– school board member Donna Westbrooks

“I am concerned with promises that were made,” school board member Donna Westbrooks said Tuesday. “I’m all about having more open discussion about it. At the same time, being a Cummings grad and working at Graham for 20 years, I love those communities. I definitely think we need to have more discussion, as well.”

For his part, Beam said that he felt the discussion should be postponed until the December 5 meeting, when three new school board members will be seated. [Beam, Gant, and Rose opted not to run for reelection in this year’s school board race.]

 

‘Never been an issue we got more input on’
Both Gant and Rose urged the school system’s administration to involve the Alamance County Area Chamber of Commerce and other community members.

Rose, however, was quick to point out that no other ABSS-related issue had received more public input than the redistricting plan and subsequent 2018 bond referendum.

“There has never been an issue that we got more public input on,” Rose said Tuesday, recalling that the school board had started developing a strategic plan in 2012 but halted it to get more public input which, after a year of meetings with staff and community members, led to the development of “A Vision Plan for Public Education in Alamance County” in 2013. Both efforts provided what he called “the template” for a strategic plan for ABSS, which was later used to develop the bond package, Rose said.

Additionally, the school board held public forums at each of the six ABSS high schools in 2016; and several school board meetings drew standing-only crowds prior to adoption of the high school redistricting plan in January 2017.

Meanwhile, Butler said Tuesday that he will “try to find a way to quickly get some public input” and bring it back to the board for discussion. “Let’s rip the Band-Aid off,” he said Tuesday, “and just ask our parents, ‘would you attend a different high school for specialty programs, and if so, what?’”

School board members are currently scheduled to resume their discussion about the redistricting plan at their next meeting in two weeks.

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