In what El Dorado Union High School Superintendent Chris Hoffman characterized as “the start of the process,” the Board of Trustees held an open and substantive discussion of the district’s historically strict intra-transfer policies, with an eye to balancing enrollment across schools and providing more flexibility to families in school border areas.
The board also largely agreed on a wait-and-see approach on the potentially much larger issue — the current high school boundaries.
Hoffman brought a short list of interrelated school boundary and enrollment issues to the July 12 board meeting:
• Potential transfers out of two high schools that could be deemed “program improvement” schools under current provisions of the No Child Left Behind law
• A further opening of enrollment at Union Mine High School to bolster low enrollment projections
• A proposed “95-5” policy that would address long-standing concerns by residents in eastern Serrano neighborhoods currently in the Ponderosa High School boundary.
Test scores for specific subgroups defined in the No Child Left Behind act, including special education, don’t meet federal targets at Union Mine and El Dorado, according to Hoffman. As a result, despite their healthy API scores, they could be deemed “program improvement” schools next year, under provisions of the act that have come under sharp criticism and must be reauthorized this year.
Worst case, said Hoffman, the district would have to allow transfers out of the two schools, regardless of capacity constraints at target schools.
Trustee Todd White expressed optimism that a state-requested waiver would be approved. But Hoffman encouraged the board to be proactive in addressing the potential impacts, including the impact of potential staff moves and capacity issues. They instructed him to formalize the potential impacts of the transfers and bring them back to the board in August.
Trustee Kevin Brown proposed A “95-5″ policy, which would pertain only to middle schools with at least 95 percent of the graduates feeding into a single high school. The other students would be allowed intra-district transfers to the same high school, as long as the high school enrollment remained below 99 percent of capacity. The proposed policy addresses real problems, said Brown, eliciting applause from the parents in the room.
The policy addresses the desire of a group of families in the so-called “Serrano finger” in eastern El Dorado Hills that is currently in the Ponderosa boundary. They would like their children to follow their friends to Oak Ridge High School, an impact of roughly 10 students per year, according to analysis done by the parents.
“Children should be given the choice to stay with the other students at their school,” said Brown.
Trustee Lori Veerkamp pointed out that other areas have it much worse, most notably Blackstone, which is located off Latrobe Road in El Dorado Hills, yet is in the Union Mine boundary.
Due to enrollment capacities at Oak Ridge, the Blackstone development was placed in the Union Mine High School boundaries, 16 miles east, when boundaries were last redrawn in 2005. The “Serrano finger” was also carved out at that time.
“If we’re talking about keeping students with their cohorts, friends … we’ve done a disservice to this community,” Veerkamp said of the Blackstone community, which has seen a recent surge in home sales.
Oak Ridge capacity
Trustee Mary Muse was concerned about increasing Oak Ridge’s enrollment, projected to skirt below capacity, with 144 students to spare next year, but the gap narrows to just 74 students at the school’s projected enrollment peak in 2016-17, according to the district’s 2011-12 demographic study.
“The quality of that school comes … from being a comfortable size,” she said, later adding, “There are people who have lived here for years and don’t want more kids at Oak Ridge.”
Trustee Tim Cary echoed Muse’s concern over increased enrollment at Oak Ridge, the only school projected to increase enrollment over the next couple years. “Study after study shows that the smaller you get the better you get.” he said.
Muse nonetheless voiced guarded optimism about the 95-5 policy, calling it “a Band-Aid that buys us time to analyze where we should be going,” a reference to the larger boundary issue.
White said he appreciated his board finally addressing the issue, but wondered why it took so long. “We’ve been discussing this for the year-and-a-half I’ve been here,” he said. “We need to present something that’s real, not just say we care but actually put a step forward and do something about it.”
Reflecting the frustration of parents in the room, White added, “The (transfer) policy is there to serve the people of the district, not the other way around.”
Cary and White exchanged verbal swipes, with Cary taking umbrage at White’s depiction of the board as unresponsive on the issue. He nonetheless supported, in principle, the 95-5 policy and suggested it might be more effective if it were more flexible.
“Our bigger issue is that we have Union Mine with 863 kids when we thought it would be double that,” Cary said.
With White’s admonition ringing in their ears, the board considered how fast to move on the reengineered transfer policy, which could be implemented as soon as the 2012-13 school year, according to Hoffman.
Muse wanted faculty input, which is two months out. Veerkamp asked to see the impacts of any proposal on enrollment. Cary suggested Hoffman return in August with a draft policy that expands Union Mine’s open enrollment policy with some variation of the 95-5 policy for a first reading.
Hoffman concurred, suggesting provisions that would allow students in “impacted” schools, those closer to capacity, to transfer to schools less impacted, thus balancing enrollment.
Muse addressed the Serrano parents in the room: “We want to meet the needs of everybody, not just one part of Serrano or one part of Marina,” a reference to the outraged reaction her board received after proposing that the area north of Green Valley Road be carved out of the Oak Ridge boundary in 2005.
Veerkamp later added, “We heard loud and clear from the community (in 2005), ‘Please don’t displace us for people who aren’t here yet.’”
Serrano resident Jeff Owens replied, “Well, we’re here now, and we’re not asking you to disregard any other part of the district because of us; we’re just saying, ‘We’re here and we’d like some attention.’”
On the matter of the boundaries, the remaining board members agreed that they would like to see if growth returns before opening up the boundary discussion, but Veerkamp worried that the situation at Union Mine might not wait, suggesting that a souped-up transfer policy might not be adequate to offset projected declines in Union Mine enrollment under the current boundaries.
Union Mine enrollment is projected to drop from 974 students in 2012-13 to 772 in 2017-18. By comparison, Oak Ridge enrollment is projected to peak at 2,314 in 2016-17.
“There’s not enough kids there,” Veerkamp said, explaining that the low enrollment impacts course selections and athletic opportunity.
“If we can’t get there with this (transfer and open enrollment policy changes) we need to look at the boundaries,” she added. “I want to assure these people that they’re going to have viable programs.”