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School board splits, 4-3, on vote to let seniors finish out next school year at current school after new zones take effect


Alamance-Burlington school board members voted 4-3 Monday night to only allow rising seniors the option to remain at their existing high schools once the high school redistricting plan takes effect for the 2023-24 school year.

Voting to limit that option to rising seniors were: school board chairman Sandy Ellington-Graves; Dan Ingle; Patsy Simpson; and Donna Westbrooks.

Voting against the motion to allow only rising seniors to decide whether to go to the new high school, or remain at their current high schools, were: school board vice chairman Ryan Bowden; and two of the school board’s newest members, Chuck Marsh and Charles Parker, who were sworn into office Monday night.

Monday’s vote followed a lengthy discussion about nearly a dozen questions that board members had submitted to the school system’s administration since voting last month (by the former board) to adopt a revised high school redistricting plan that’s intended to keep existing middle school attendance boundaries intact and limit the number of students who will have to change schools next year.

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The high school redistricting plan is currently scheduled to take effect for the upcoming, 2023-24 school year.

The vote also followed unsuccessful attempts Monday night to convince the school system’s administration to consider a “phased approach” to “populating” the forthcoming new high school – by moving rising freshmen to Southeast High School for 2023-24, to be followed by rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors each year thereafter until 2026-27, when all four grades would be offered.

“I would say, seniors can choose – everybody else goes,” ABSS superintendent Dr. Dain Butler told the board Monday night. “I think in order to populate Southeast appropriately, at least for a full year, [you should say] this is where you have to go.”

Bowden asks to grandfather juniors and seniors at their current high schools
Bowden said Monday night that he’s been contacted by people “from the southern and eastern corridors” who’d prefer it if juniors and seniors are allowed to remain at their current schools. Bowden said he’s concerned some students, who will be juniors next year, may be denied the opportunity to play varsity sports if they’re moved to Southeast High School for the 2023-24 school year.

“To me, that is just not fair,” Bowden insisted. “Some of these individuals, that is why they go to school – to play sports. Right, wrong, or indifferent, that is what they do. My idea would be to allow rising juniors and seniors the option to stay or go.”

Current and previous school board members, ABSS officials, as well as numerous business leaders and community members, have long said that construction of the new $67 million high school – which, along with $83 million in expansions and renovations to the six existing high schools and two elementary schools, were included in the $150 million bond package that voters approved for ABSS in November 2018 – was needed to alleviate overcrowding at Eastern and Southern High schools.

ABSS chief operations officer Dr. Todd Thorpe told school board members Monday night that several high schools would be over capacity if juniors and seniors were allowed to stay at their current schools next year (see accompanying chart).


Parker: Could be easier to open Southeast with fewer students
Parker, one of the three new school board members who took office Monday night, said he, too, was open to allowing juniors and seniors to remain at their current schools next year.

“My middle child is a sophomore at Eastern, a rising junior, and she’s in the transfer zone,” he told his fellow board members. “She will go to the new high school. I don’t know what the numbers we’re talking about if we let juniors stay; I know it’s not 100 percent of juniors that will stay…How many students would stay versus go? I bet it’s not half. If you look at the numbers, I don’t know that we’ll be [over capacity]. I think we’ll have a couple of years to get to the point where it’s overcrowded.

“The second thing is, there are things such as teachers to hire, folks to get in place, and if the initial population is slightly lower – and yes, I know it’s a large new building,” Parker elaborated. “I don’t know if it’s easier or more difficult, if I’m a new principal and trying to get everyone in place and all the classes in place. If you’re working with a slightly smaller student body, does that make it easier? That’s kind of what I’m thinking as far as juniors and seniors. Quantity has a quality all its own. There’s less room for error, as far as ‘we couldn’t get a teacher for this subject’ or something like that, whereas they might already have the teachers in place at their current school. Less athletics, and more logistics in terms of starting a new school, is kind of what I’m thinking about for juniors.”

Board member Donna Westbrooks recalled that she had voted to for the seven-school redistricting plan – as opposed to the January 2017 plan that called for five traditional high schools and converting Cummings and Graham High schools to specialty schools – due to the potential for overcrowding in 2023-24.

“I get what you’re saying that it’s not going to be all the juniors and all the seniors,” Westbrooks said Monday night. “So is it too late to do a poll? Right now, if I had to vote, I am not going to vote for juniors to [stay] as well because of the fear I have for schools being over capacity. I don’t like it; and I’m not going to do it.”

Others say it won’t look good to open a $67M new high school for or two grade levels
“We were elected to make these hard decisions,” Simpson responded. “That’s why we go to athletic events and concerts and do so much in talking to parents, so that we as an individual board member have that feedback when we have to deal with these time restraints and these different decisions.

“My God, if my phone rings anymore, and emails, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Simpson said. “I am very involved in listening to parents. To make a decision, in my opinion, just based on athletics, when you have to look at the other things, such as teachers moving and you’re only doing it piecemeal – I think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars to have a [220,000]-square foot facility and we’re not doing our jobs to fill it up.”

Ingle, who also took office Monday night, said he’d researched other high schools and found two nearby (in Orange and Guilford counties) that had “grandfathered” both juniors and seniors.

Yet Ingle also questioned the wisdom of opening a new high school with only one or two classes of students, namely freshmen and sophomores. He added, “With a [220,000]-square feet building, and you’re only putting 584 students in it – that does not look good with the taxpayers of Alamance County.”

“I appreciate Mr. Ingle’s point, too, but I do want to point out, we don’t know which juniors and seniors would choose to go,” Bowden countered. “What I’m getting at is Eastern’s capacity is 1,250, and it’s only going to take 10 or 11 students to bring that down under capacity. So I don’t want us to think if we approve juniors and seniors, we’re going to have three high schools over capacity. That may not necessarily be the case.”

Simpson pointed out, “You’ve got those [students] moving into Eastern that are coming from other schools such as Graham [as part of the high school redistricting plan that takes effect at the start of the 2023-24 school year]. It’s not just those leaving Eastern and going to Southeast; it’s other kids coming in that are going to impact those numbers, as well.”

Thorpe confirmed for the board that his projections for which high schools would be over capacity in 2023-24 was predicated on the assumption that all rising juniors and seniors would opt to remain at their current school.


Southeast High School assigned to Mid-State 1A/2A conference
“Just think: if we were to entertain the juniors and seniors, we’re looking at one additional year of something we’ve dealt with for years,” Bowden said.

“Me personally, I will be voting against this tonight just because I do know for a fact that we will have athletes that possibly will not have the option of playing sports because they are rising juniors,” the board’s vice chairman explained.

“I totally see where you’re coming from,” Ellington-Graves told Bowden Monday night. “But I also see that we’re spending $67 million dollars to address the problem that we’ve had for years and years and years.

“I think athletics is a piece of it,” the chairman acknowledged. “I voted for Plan D because I felt like the community needs answers, but there [are] a lot of challenges for me personally with Plan D. We’ve got people at the Chatham County line going to Southeast and not Southern; then we’ve got people on the upper end of the Southern zone that have multiple geographical choices. There [are] a lot of challenges. But I feel like we need to support this plan and move forward based on the numbers and making sure we’re doing what’s best for the district.”

Eric Yarbrough, who was hired earlier this year to serve as the principal at Southeast High School, confirmed for school board members later in their discussion that the new high school will likely offer varsity sports across the board, though that would be in question if Southeast opens only for freshmen and sophomores next year.

Southeast High School has been assigned to the Mid-State 1A/2A conference, which means that the school’s athletic teams will compete in the same conference as Cummings and Graham High schools, the North Carolina High school Athletics Association (NCHSAA) ruled November 30.

“I think we would end up playing varsity sports pretty much across the board, even without seniors,” Yarbrough told the board Monday night. “I think the question does come into play a little more if we only have freshmen and sophomores; we would probably wind up playing JV sports]. We would probably end up having to find a lot of out-of-conference sports to have a JV schedule.”

“So you’re saying if juniors come also, there will be a high probability that we will have varsity sports?” Ingle asked Yarbrough.

“I think we will most likely play varsity sports across the board,” Yarbrough said, just because of the kind of competition that we’ll be playing and the conference that we’re in; we’ll be forced in that direction.”

ABSS chief academic officer Revonda Johnson said Monday night that rising seniors who wish to stay at their current high schools for the 2023-24 school year must submit a request to do so prior to January 31, 2023.

Meanwhile, school board members also agreed Monday night to discuss potential changes to the ABSS transfer policy during a special-called meeting currently scheduled for next Tuesday afternoon.

Read the newspaper’s editorial page views on the redistricting issue(s):

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