District 833 nears middle school boundary decision


Parents are watching closely and speaking up as the South Washington County School Board considers proposals to change middle school attendance boundaries.

The school board in August will approve a boundary change plan for 2018-19 that could shuffle roughly 1,000 students in grades 6-8 — nearly 25 percent this fall's middle school enrollment — as the district seeks to alleviate overcrowding, plan for future population growth and balance enrollment at its four schools, including a new building.

Hundreds of parent emails and comments have hit district and school board member inboxes in recent weeks, and a nearly full board room at a meeting last week followed a meeting in early July where a large crowd of parents spilled into a lobby. Those meetings came after community conversations that drew a couple hundred people.

Some parents fear their children's lost relationships if they are split from friends and head to a different middle school. Others want the district to reconsider dividing up housing developments into separate middle school boundaries. Still others want their children attending school in the city they live and not, for instance, going from a school in Woodbury to a school in Cottage Grove.

Nicole Middlecamp, a Woodbury parent of two children who moved recently from Minneapolis, told board members last week she bought her home due to the reputation of Woodbury schools. The boundary proposals could have her children switching from Woodbury Middle School to the new Oltman Middle School being built in Cottage Grove. She and other parents in her neighborhood are asking the district to put them at Lake Middle School instead.

"We really hope for your consideration so that our kids can continue with the success that they have now and those relationships that they have now," Middlecamp said.

Three plans

Three boundary options have been proposed by a district steering committee, which reviewed multiple options and received public input and feedback from a task force that included parents from all affected neighborhoods.

There are similarities with all three plans: Armstrong Elementary students would be moved from Oltman Middle to Cottage Grove Middle. Also, Cottage Grove Elementary students switch from Cottage Grove Middle to Oltman Middle. And all three plans include moving the district's Spanish immersion program from Cottage Grove Middle to Woodbury Middle. That Spanish immersion move has upset some parents whose children might be moving from Woodbury Middle, but district administrators and school board members say they are following through on a commitment since before a 2015 levy and bond referendum to relocate the middle school Spanish immersion program.

The new Oltman Middle will open next fall, when revised boundaries go into effect. The school site on 65th Street is located near where Cottage Grove, St. Paul Park and Newport city boundaries meet and within a half-mile of the Woodbury border.

Highlights of the three proposals include:

Plan C:

• It would move a total of 997 students next year.

• 82 walkers would become bus riders.

• It includes 12 pure elementary-to-middle school feeders.

• It lowers the average enrollment variation across the four middle schools from 529 to 284.

This is the most popular plan among people who've submitted comments to the district. A group of parents in a Woodbury neighborhood identified as W-64 are advocating the district to adopt a modified Plan C that would send them from Woodbury Middle to Lake Middle instead of to Oltman Middle.

Plan G:

• It would move a total of 1,030 students.

• 72 walkers would become bus riders.

• There would be 12 pure elementary-to-middle-school feeders.

• It would lower average enrollment variation across the four schools from 529 to 189.

Key concerns for some parents is that the Stonemill Farms development in Woodbury is split among two neighborhood groups. Stonemill parents want the development considered one neighborhood for attendance boundary purposes.

Plan S:

• It would move a total of 915 students.

• 34 walkers would become bus riders.

• There would be 11 pure elementary-to-middle school feers.

• It would lower average enrollment variation across the middle schools to 305 students from the current 529-student average variation.

Plan S is the least-favored option among parents who have commented at public meetings.

From one city to another?

Some Woodbury parents have told the school board their children attend school and participate in activities within that city and they don't want to lose those established connections by being switched to a middle school in Cottage Grove.

School board member Katie Schwartz asked administrators if that's even possible.

Mike Vogel, the district's interim facilities and construction management director, said it could work for a few years but it is not possible in the long term to design a boundary plan that keeps all Woodbury students in either Woodbury Middle or Lake Middle. That's in part due to future population growth in Woodbury.

"We believe ultimately you're going to have to send some students from Woodbury into schools in Cottage Grove," Vogel said, later adding: "I don't think that we should be apologetic, quite frankly, about sending kids from Woodbury to a $72 million, brand new middle school that's going to be the envy of the metropolitan area."

Superintendent Keith Jacobus said they wish they could create plans that would make everyone happy, but it is not possible to please all neighborhoods. Students can be successful in any District 833 school, he said.

"We are not the Cottage Grove school district or the Woodbury school district but the South Washington County School District," he said.

Board members acknowledged the challenge of setting school boundaries, an emotional process for parents and one in which not all interests are satisfied. They said they want multiple options to consider Aug. 3, rather than just one administrative recommendation. They may consider modified versions of the three pending proposals, so long as it wouldn't alter plans for neighborhoods that were not affected by the original plans because they would not have the same opportunity to weigh in.

The board is expected to receive an administration recommendation — or multiple options — at its Aug. 3 meeting. The board will approve a plan Aug. 17.

Board members want a long-term solution.

"We don't want to do this every two years," Chairwoman Katy McElwee-Stevens said last week.

Boundary process details

To learn more about the District 833 middle school boundary change process and to see complete details of three proposals, go to www.sowashco.org and select "Middle School Attendance Boundaries."