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School Board candidates stake out positions on attendance boundaries

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South Washington County School Board candidates have varying views on how to handle the emotionally charged job of changing school boundaries.

A question about boundary changes at a recent election forum exposed different opinions among candidates who otherwise generally agreed on issues ranging from the upcoming District 833 referendum to support for choice education programs.

Some candidates said they would try to avoid changing school boundaries while others called for keeping neighborhoods together or making it more objective by taking parent input out of the process.

“You need to find some dispassionate people to make some hard choices,” said Raj Gandhi. Gandhi said boundary changes are a challenge because any decision will upset someone. The board should keep in mind that everybody wants to be as close as possible to their home school, he said.

If it’s understood that the school board is acting in the best interest of the community, Gandhi added, “hopefully things will go well.”

Michael Edman, a former Republican Party activist, said “a long time ago” he had exposure to how state legislative districts are redrawn. Edman said the school district should create a system for attendance boundary changes in which concerns from parents are ignored and an “objective” method is used to figure out the most efficient way to transport children.

Only then, Edman said, can the board explain to an upset parent how the decision was made.

Edman also said he would be open to waivers from families after boundaries are redrawn.

David Kemper, an incumbent, said his family moved to Woodbury in 2000 and had a difficult experience with attendance boundaries that were redrawn and affected his children.

“I’m going to do everything I can to avoid boundary changes because it really messes up your family,” he said.

Lines will be redrawn

The attendance boundary issue was among questions asked during the Oct. 22 candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters-Woodbury/Cottage Grove. There are no pending boundary changes in South Washington County Schools, but district administrators said as recently as last week that lines will need to be redrawn when new school buildings are constructed. (The district could be on the ballot as soon as 2015 seeking money to build two new schools.)

Participating in the forum were Edman, Gandhi, Fred Hess, Kemper, Laurie Johnson, Tracy Brunnette, John Griffin Jr., Molly Lutz, Katy McElwee-Stevens, Katie Schwartz and Sharon Van Leer.

Candidates Leilani Holmstadt, Susan Richardson, Mike Thissen and Wayne Johnson did not participate. David Firkus and Saffiyah Cummings will appear on the ballot but are not actively campaigning and were not at the League forum.

Changing boundaries is a “very emotional” topic that should be avoided when possible, but sometimes enrollment growth patterns mean they are needed, candidate Fred Hess said. He said it’s not realistic for all kids to be able to walk to neighborhood schools.

“The goal would be to try to keep it as local as you can,” Hess said.

Calling herself the “poster child” for boundary changes, incumbent Laurie Johnson said as a child she went to three elementary schools, two junior highs and a high school, all while living in the same house.

Johnson said she sympathizes with parents concerned about boundary changes but said the district has tried to design a neighborhood system that moves students in a way that makes sense. She said there will be some separation of friends in a boundary change, but the district has a good system of neighborhood schools and she would do what’s possible to maintain it.

McElwee-Stevens, an incumbent, said she tells people that in a growing district school boundaries only last five to seven years, before they need to be redrawn. She said she tells them to be ready for change.

It’s important to try to keep communities together and to get community input, McElwee-Stevens said.

“Boundaries are far more difficult for parents than they are for kids,” she added.

Lutz said if new boundaries need to be drawn, the district should think “outside the box in transportation” while maintaining consistency. She said the new district transportation director has good ideas about busing.

Van Leer said she has lived in three areas of Woodbury, and in one instance lived outside the district by one block and her kids had to attend school in Oakdale. One of the solutions was open enrollment, she said.

“There is no real solution to this (attendance boundary) problem, but I think we need consistency,” she said.

Schwartz served on attendance boundary committees for the middle schools and high schools when the district lines were last redrawn.

“It’s tough for people,” she said, adding that people who want to stay in their neighborhood school have valid concerns. Parent involvement is needed.

“If the boundaries have to be changed, the community needs to be involved to figure out what works best for the district,” she said.

Griffin said there’s “no great solution” to boundary changes. He said some districts have come up with a plan in which parents are given choices and then the district tries to work schools within a boundary.

The district’s process for the last boundary changes was a really good process that tried to keep neighborhoods together, incumbent Tracy Brunnette said. Ideas were vetted by an advisory council and then further changes were made before a final plan was adopted.

“It’s just a difficult decision to be in, but you need to make the best decision for the district,” Brunnette said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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