South Washington County School Board selects task force's middle school boundary plan

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Middle school boundaries for nearly 1,000 students will change next year after the South Washington County School Board selected a new, administrative-drawn attendance map over an alternative preferred by some parents.

The changes affect an estimated 997 students who will be redirected from one middle school to another beginning in fall 2018 as the district attempts to spread the grades 6-8 student population evenly across four buildings and plan for future residential development that is expected to increase enrollment.

Boundary changes will coincide with the September 2018 opening of the new Oltman Middle School in north Cottage Grove. That building will draw some students who currently are in boundaries for the other three middle schools, and will be comprised of students who live in Cottage Grove, Woodbury, St. Paul Park and Newport.

The district and school board spent several months studying middle school boundary options. Multiple plans were dismissed as unfavorable, and two remained for a Thursday, Sept. 7 board decision.

The board picked Plan C, developed by the district and preferred by an administrative steering committee and a middle school boundary community task force.

The other option was Plan C-3, a modified version requested by parents that would have sent one Woodbury neighborhood — south of Dale Road and between Jamaica Avenue and Woodbury Drive — to Lake Middle School instead of Oltman, as Plan C indicates. But in doing so, it would have just reassigned another nearby area — bordered by Bailey Road and Dale Road, and Radio Drive and Pioneer Road — from Lake to Oltman.

In essence, board members had to decide which Woodbury neighborhood group would attend Oltman and which would be part of the Lake boundary.

The board split 3-2. Tracy Brunnette, Ron Kath and Michelle Witte supported Plan C, while Sharon Van Leer and Katie Schwartz favored Plan C-3. Board chair Katy McElwee-Stevens was absent due to a family emergency.

During a board discussion, Schwartz said she was "split directly down the middle" because the pros and cons were equal for both options, she said. However, she cited the forecasted need to build an addition onto the new Oltman building sooner in Plan C, and she ultimately voted for Plan C-3.

Witte said she empathizes with parents affected by boundary decisions, but to best honor input from the community she was inclined to support the plan that came from the district's community task force. She also said she was concerned that Plan C-3 would have further crowded Lake in the first three years of the new boundaries, and she said that plan put additional constraints on other neighborhoods.

Also, Witte said, there is an issue of fairness: The board previously has turned back neighborhood requests to move to Lake due to the school being overcrowded. Plan C-3 would have been granting the type of request previously denied.

Kath said in boundary decisions he wants to see a clearly defined process with good guidelines, input from all stakeholders and an option that's in the best interest of the overall district.

"Everybody certainly had a clear voice in this process," Kath said, noting the boundary decision was extended to allow for more consideration of the options.

Plan C does a better job of keeping kids in "cohorts" as they move from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school.

Supporters of Plan C-3 appealed to board members at public meetings and through emails and phone calls in the weeks leading up to the vote. Some parents have said they live in Woodbury and want their children to attend middle school in the community where they already have strong community connections.

Among those neighborhoods is W-46, whose residents advocated for Plan C-3. They appealed to board members at public meetings and through emails and phone calls in the weeks leading up to the vote, pointing out some advantages of their plan and requesting their students be able to continue attending school in the city they live.

Creating district boundaries where students only attended school in their home city would negatively impact taxpayers, Witte said.

"The reality is we have Woodbury neighborhoods who will have to go to schools in Cottage Grove, just as St. Paul Park is moving to Cottage Grove ... (and) as Cottage Grove has moved to Woodbury schools for East Ridge," she said.

Brunnette said there were insinuations during the middle school boundary process that any District 822 school outside Woodbury is inferior.

"That's just absolutely not true," she said, noting fair budgets and use of the same curriculum. "We have an excellent school district." 

In Plan C, 187 students move from Oltman to Cottage Grove Middle. Another 291 students will move in reverse, from Cottage Grove Middle to Oltman.

There are 226 students moving from Lake to Woodbury Middle. An additional 62 students will move from Woodbury Middle to Lake.

The remaining large group includes 82 students moving from Woodbury Middle to Oltman.

The middle school Spanish immersion program will move from Cottage Grove Middle to Woodbury Middle School; that's roughly 149 students.