The Panama-Buena Vista Union School District is redrawing its attendance boundary lines to accommodate growth in the southwest.
The district thought about building a new school during the housing boom, but now that new construction has slowed, administrators feel it would be more efficient to evenly distribute students at existing schools.
Under current boundaries, some schools are underused and others are overcrowded. The district's smallest school, McAuliffe Elementary School, has 496 students, for instance; and the largest, Berkshire Elementary School, has 1,037.
Under a proposal to be considered by the school board next week, junior high school lines would be unchanged but 14 of the district's 18 elementary schools would have new boundaries starting in 2013-14. The only elementary school boundaries that aren't being redrawn are at Castle, Loudon, Sandrini and Van Horn.
The plan affects about 1,400 students, or roughly 8 percent of the district.
Some families are finding the changes disconcerting.
Mother of three Carmen Mejia, 40, isn't up to speed on all the details yet, but she's worried by what she's heard so far.
"We love this school," she said Friday as she picked up her 5-year-old son from Berkshire. "I have older kids who went through here. It's easy for me to get to. I don't want him to move."
Juan Billalovos, 35, was also at Berkshire to pick up his son and hadn't heard about the proposal. He rolled his eyes when a reporter filled him in.
"We've only been here about a month and a half," Billalovos said. "We just moved here from Ontario. I'd hate to have to switch schools again."
Boundary changes are always painful, said Superintendent Kip Hearron.
"Nobody likes to do them, but at this point we have necessary changes that really can't be avoided," he said.
Administrators will be making the case to parents at two community meetings this week. The board is scheduled to vote on the proposal May 14.
That doesn't leave much time to put the plan in place. Students return from summer break on Aug. 19.
That's disturbing to critics such as Kim Michkind, a mother of two who worries that the tight time frame doesn't give parents enough opportunity to weigh in and robs the district's still unnamed new superintendent of any input.
Hearron is retiring in June, and a consulting firm has been retained to help the district search for a successor.
"Why would they rush this through before even hiring a new superintendent?" Michkind asked. "For all we know, we may have new blood with a new vision and new ideas for changes that could make all this moot."
Michkind said the proposal doesn't do enough to preserve bonds between classmates and neighbors, and doesn't give sufficient consideration to making sure students who go to elementary school together also go to junior high school together.
Hearron admits the time frame for implementation would be quick if the proposal is approved, but said the district deliberately waited until after the Nov. 6 school board elections so that new board members could vote on the proposal.
Also, at a time when state funding cuts have stretched all school district budgets thin, realignment is the most cost effective solution, Hearron said.
The alternative would be to purchase portable buildings for schools that are bursting at the seams at a cost of between $750,000 and $1.5 million, he said. And those would only be a temporary solution as the district is still expanding.
"Someplace like Fruitvale isn't going to have to modify boundaries very often because it's built out and landlocked, but we still have a lot of open land to build on," Hearron said.
Of particular concern is a development Black Ops Real Estate is planning for up to 150 residential units on 12 acres at the southwest corner of River Run Boulevard and Elkhorn Creek Lane. The developer hopes to break ground next year and is in the process of seeking a zone change from single-family homes to a higher-density designation.
Panama-Buena Vista has grown 16 percent over the last eight years from 15,032 students in 2005 to 17,473 as of May 1.
"That's the equivalent of about three schools," said Assistant Superintendent Gerrie Kincaid.
A committee of administrators, teachers and parents has been meeting since April to draw the new map.
Mother of two Elizabeth Howard served on the committee and concedes that the plan isn't perfect. She's especially sympathetic about dividing elementary school cohorts between different junior high schools.
"Junior high is already such a difficult time as it is without losing the friends you went to elementary school with," Howard said.
But the plan is a delicate balancing act that factors in all sorts of issues, including traffic, population growth and community bonds. "It's a good idea to balance the enrollment, but it's really difficult to take all of those things into consideration with every boundary change because it's just a lot of kids," Howard said.
The district's most crowded school, Berkshire, is one of several schools feeling the pressure of overcrowing under the current boundaries. Principal Marsha Ketchell said she hates to lose any of her students, "but there are some challenges inherent in having so many children."
Traffic during drop off and pick up times is very busy, and it's hard to schedule lunch, computer lab and library time for everyone, Ketchell said.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is McAuliffe, which has so few students that it's used as an overflow school for children from campuses that can't accommodate anymore.
"This is just a very stable, mature area," said Principal Dan Pokett. "There isn't a lot of turnover, so when the kids grow up and go off to college, there aren't new families coming in to replace them."
McAuliffe has 496 permanent students, and about 127 more are bused in from other neighborhoods where schools are filled to capacity. They go back to their home schools whenever space permits, causing a degree of instability at McAuliffe.
The good news is that the potential influx of 200 new permanent students under the proposal would not exceed the number of overflow students at McAuliffe now, so overall attendance won't change much, Pokett said.
Michkind, who lives in the current McAuliffe boundaries, said she just wants to be sure that what she considers a "haphazard" process to date ultimately concludes with a situation that is in the best interests of all the district's children.
"I'll disclose right now that I'm just worried it's going to negatively affect my neighborhood," Michkind said. "This is a great community of kids who've all grown up together. I'd hate to lose that."