School zoning changes questioned


Published: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 6, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

The public has one last chance to voice concerns and make recommendations before the Alachua County School Board considers several changes to school attendance zones.

A large crowd of parents, teachers and students is expected at the open forum scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Monday at Kanapaha Middle School, 5005 SW 75th St.

At the previous two meetings, citizens raised questions about the district's motivation for considering the zoning options presented, especially one option that would send entering freshmen who live in the Haile Plantation area to either Gainesville High School or Eastside High School.

"I still can't quite figure out why the School Board is so hot after this issue of rezoning," said Bryon Petersen, who said he purchased his house in Haile based on the fact that it was zoned for Buchholz.

"To me it just seems like it's a ploy for bussing," he said.

Superintendent Dan Boyd has cited two motivations for the proposed changes: ending school overcrowding and improving socioeconomic diversity.

Buchholz High School is the most overcrowded school in the district, operating at almost 116 percent capacity or 322 students over the capacity of 2,054 students. Gainesville High School is six students shy of 100 percent capacity, while Eastside High School has 219 open seats, according to data released by the school district.

But School Board member Wes Eubank said that student attendance numbers at Buchholz are inaccurate.

"Part of the problem is that students are counted so many different ways," Eubank said.

There are many students who are enrolled at Buchholz but actually attend classes at Santa Fe Community College for most of the year.

"Before we rezone, let's look at the best data we have before we decide what we're going to do," Eubank said, adding that he requested the new data be ready for the meeting on Monday.

More than a month ago, letters were sent home with students that outlined five geographic areas that could be zoned to different high schools for the 2008-2009 school year.

And while Haile Plantation is only one area affected, it is the most vocal group opposing the proposal.

The letter also proposed rezoning an area from its current Fort Clarke Middle School designation to Westwood Middle School. The only change proposed for elementary school zones affects Newberry Elementary, which is quickly becoming crowded in the growing west side of the county. The proposal would move the fifth-grade class at Newberry to Oak View Middle School.

That recommendation has a separate public input session scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Monday January 14 at Oak View Middle School, 1203 SW 250th St., in Newberry.

The high school zoning proposal has also created confusion among school board members, who have said a much different plan was presented at the public meetings than what they had seen at School Board meetings.

"The board did not decide to tell parents that kids from Haile Plantation were going to either GHS or Eastside," board member Eileen Roy said, adding that the plan they saw showed only a transfer to Gainesville High as a possibility.

Roy said she would not support a plan that would send students to the opposite end of town for school.

The district's top priority when considering zoning is neighborhood schools, according to its policy.

Eubank said he agreed with Roy.

"It is my understanding that there never was or has been any discussion to move Haile to Eastside," he said. "Staff came up with the brilliant idea that if we're vague, it would fit any decision that would end up being made," he said.

However, parents have pointed out that if the students at Haile are sent to Gainesville High School, and the other recommendations are also enacted, Gainesville High would be pushed to 133 students over capacity, according to numbers provided by the district.

"There's really no urgent need to rezone kids from Buchholz," Roy said. "It's much less crowded than it has been in the past."

So why the sudden push for changes, parents have asked.

Some parents believe the district is trying to improve the scores of Gainesville and Eastside high schools, which received "D" grades in 2005 but improved to "C" grades in 2006. Buchholz is the only Alachua County high school that received an "A" on state standards.

"It just seems like a thinly veiled attempt to try and put a quick fix on a problem," Petersen said.

Others contend the rezoning proposal was put forward in an attempt to mobilize a large voting population and tax base to approve a sales tax or other means to fund a new high school on the west side of town.

"I can give you assurances that that is not the case," Eubank said. "It did not start with any political agenda."

While population growth numbers don't call for a new high school in Alachua County for another 10 to 20 years, new school concurrency laws could halt development on the west side of town if there isn't sufficient capacity at area schools.

For that reason, some have said a new high school is needed in the next three or four years, but funding for that isn't likely coming from the state, which leaves funding options such as a sales tax or bond issue.

"As a result of this, if we wanted a sales tax, could we get support for this? Yes, but that's not the way we get support," Eubank said.

If a tax is the motivation behind the zoning proposal, Peterson said, "OK, fine. Let's put a 1 percent sales tax and we'll build a new high school."

Megan Rolland can be reached at 338-3104 or megan.rolland@ gvillesun.com.

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