Viewpoint: School Board should approve boundary plan C-3

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The South Washington County School Board will vote on two remaining middle school boundary plan options at its meeting on Sept. 7. This decision will affect not only those with school-age children, but every taxpayer in the district. The cost implications of the boundary plan that is ultimately approved will be significant, but this factor is being ignored by school district administration. The district is considering a plan, known as "Plan C," which would grossly underutilize space in existing schools, and instead intentionally force another costly middle school expansion.

Among the boundary process "guiding change principles" is the basic concept that we should not adopt a plan that would force any school over its functional capacity by more than a nominal amount. The new boundaries are intended to last for 6-10 years, and the goal is to spread out enrollment across all four middle schools, and prevent overcrowding at any school for as long as possible. This concept is balanced with other objectives, like keeping cohorts of students together as they graduate between schools (especially from middle school to high school), and keeping neighborhood groups together in nearby community schools so as to promote safe and efficient transportation. Most people, including me, would agree that these are sound objectives. Where the district has fallen short is in its refusal to acknowledge the cost implications of each proposed plan, and the idea that under-enrollment ought to be avoided as well if we are to make efficient use of resources.

The process has been skewed from the outset because the district has relied on incomplete and misleading enrollment data to draw conclusions and rank each plan. What we can glean from the district's partial data, as applied to the two remaining plans, is the fact that the Plan C would force the new Oltman to 6 percent over capacity as early as Year 4 of the new boundaries, and overcrowding there would steadily increase because the same plan would grow enrollment at Oltman. Plan C would bloat the new Oltman (a school not yet even built) before the new boundaries are half way through their life expectancy. Meanwhile, this same plan would leave nearby Cottage Grove Middle School nearly 20 percent under capacity, and Lake Middle School nearly 7 percent under capacity; notably, these two schools will see continued decreasing enrollment.

Regarding inevitable overcrowding at the new Oltman, the superintendent says the plan is to eventually expand the newly constructed building. The superintendent doesn't need to worry about justifying a need for his brick-and-mortar expansion to taxpayers, because lease levies to fund the construction don't require voter approval. The superintendent has a history of using lease levies for projects that have no link to need, and no hope of broad taxpayer support; expanding the new Oltman, while other district schools sit grossly underutilized would be no exception.

Sadly, many of the students relocated under Plan C would be needlessly pulled out of their own neighborhood schools, and forced into a new building where where fewer kids will feed into a common high school. Meanwhile, the school closest to home, where bus routes would be shorter and less expensive, will have empty desks.

I urge the school board to reject Plan C and vote for the alternative Plan C-3 which is a middle school boundary plan that makes responsible use of resources and honors community. As we head into the election season it is imperative that you instill confidence and trust in your voters. Students and teachers should always come first, not brick and mortar.