Listening sessions produce more public disapproval of changing school boundaries
The ongoing adjustment of middle school boundaries in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District has been controversial and the contentiousness between some West Linn parents and district administration hasn't let up much, as demonstrated by public listening sessions this past week.
Following strong feedback from community members — particularly families of children at Stafford, Willamette, Bolton and Cedaroak Park primaries — the district held public meetings at all nine of its primary schools Jan. 3-5 to garner more input about the boundary process to date.
Parents and community members had a number of questions, voiced further disapproval and suggested some possible solutions. The boundary adjustments are the result of the district's newest school, Meridian Creek Middle School in Wilsonville, which is expected to open its doors for the start of the 2017-18 school year. Part of the 2014 capital bond, the school is in response to growing communities in both West Linn and Wilsonville that have all three of the district's current middle schools at or over capacity.
Concerns first cropped up during public meetings Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. There, district administration presented two boundary scenarios created by the Middle School Boundary Task force (assembled in late September). The two maps — scenario 7A and scenario 7B — contained multiple components, which can be rearranged into any number of combinations.
The Boundary Task Force collected input through verbal feedback, written cards and online submissions during and following the Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 meetings. Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Barb Soisson said the district received more than 950 online comments during that time, which revealed a few recurring themes — one of which was that there was a lot of misunderstanding around the maps. She said they were meant to be examples of scenarios and the information the Boundary Task Force is working with, and not final maps or boundaries to be voted on.
"The (Boundary Task Force) spent those first four meetings looking at 'What can we put together to bring to the community to get feedback?' What we're going to create is a hybrid, not even of those two maps, but probably of parts of parts of the maps," Soisson told Bolton Primary parents Thursday, Jan. 5. "We're not voting on one or the other. We have made no decisions. Our end goal is for as much consistency as possible for every family."
The largest concerns, or at least loudest, that sprang from the first meetings came from map 7B, which showed Willamette Primary students attending the new Meridian Creek Middle School instead of Athey Creek Middle School like they currently do. It also showed a contingent of Stafford families, specifically the Fox Hills Neighborhood in Tualatin, attending Meridian Creek instead of Athey Creek. Bolton families, meanwhile, would be moved to Athey Creek — a much further commute than to Rosemont Ridge Middle School.
Those same concerns were voiced and elaborated on during last week's listening sessions. One major question regarded the number of WL-WV students who live outside the district and who entered through open enrollment — the Oregon law that the district has opted to participate in the past few years. Parents were concerned that those kids were taking priority over in-district families who paid for the 2014 bond through property taxes.
Currently, 673 students in the WL-WV School District are spread across K-12 via open enrollment. Soisson said that approximately 100 of those kids are currently enrolled across the three existing middle schools, and that the district only allowed for a small fraction of new open enrollment students last year.
"The district sets the number of open slots for the primary, middle and high school levels before the open enrollment (period) every year, and we've set a decreasing number of slots in the past couple years," she said. "Once they come to our district they're ours and will stay with us until they graduate, but they don't get a preference of school when they come in. They're not guaranteed placement in any one school."
Soisson said the district has chosen to participate in open enrollment for a number of reasons, explaining at the Bolton listening session that WL-WV used the law to keep the same level of programming at the school when Bolton enrollment dwindled after Trillium Creek was opened in 2012. She said the district has a history of ensuring neighborhood schools remain open, and that tax dollars don't go to waste following major bond projects.
Another common question among parents was surrounding the criteria the Boundary Task Force used when creating scenarios 7A and 7B. Many felt that the "guiding principles" that were used were too vague and ambiguous, and that there weren't any clear metrics used in the process. Many said they felt like they were being lied to because the information they'd been presented to date was unclear.
Soisson explained the Boundary Task Force's criteria, saying the primary purpose of the new boundaries is to balance enrollment numbers at all four middle schools. Rosemont Ridge currently has 839 enrolled students (compared to its capacity range of 683-711), Inza R. Wood has 802 (its capacity range is 675-701) and Athey Creek has 663 (the only school in its ideal range of 651-677). Other guiding principles include enrollment projections, demographic balance, accessibility to a neighborhood school, driving and busing times, staffing balance, quality programming at all schools and equity of resources and programs.
Both Bolton and Willamette parents also voiced concern that the proposed boundaries of 7B would negatively affect their property values, while noting that many families moved to their current residences to attend the school they're currently zoned for. Another common question related to how the new middle school boundaries will affect which high school kids ultimately attend.
While many parents and community members used the public listening sessions to voice displeasure, some used the platform to pitch possible solutions to perceived boundary challenges.
One common suggestion was to expand Athey Creek Middle School instead of building Meridian Creek — which will open with a capacity of roughly 450 and contain opportunities for expansion. But Soisson explained Meridian Creek was planned for reasons other than a growing Wilsonville population, and that its location site was also carefully selected.
She said the district's Long Range Planning Committee has been looking at the possibility for a new middle school in that general area since 1988, and that it has worked with both West Linn and Wilsonville city governments to gauge population growth and demographics over the years. She said that data, coupled with growing enrollments at existing schools, prompted the decision to include Meridian Creek on the 2014 capital bond.
Some Willamette parents suggested splitting the district into two — a West Linn school district and Wilsonville school district — but Soisson said that would dramatically affect funding and the quality of education currently offered.
Another suggestion was to create choice zones — where families in certain areas could choose between one of two middle schools — something the district has implemented in the past when possible and will try to include with middle school boundaries, according to Soisson. People also wondered if Meridian Creek could be built as a magnet school with desirable programs, incentivizing families to choose the new school and therefore alleviating pressure from the three existing middle schools.
Soisson said there were many valid points raised during the listening sessions, and that the Boundary Task Force will take everything into strong consideration moving forward. She acknowledged that the process has been "messy," but the district's intent was to be as transparent as possible.
"Trust me, we wouldn't be doing this if we didn't have to, making these adjustments or putting forth any kind of process like this if there was a way we could solve it with one easy fix," Soisson said. "We know that the way we're doing this is not the quickest way. We also realize it's messy and that there can be misunderstandings, and that by doing it this way we run that risk.
"The tension between involving community and showing them things are possibilities, we opted for that and to be open. The challenge was to make sure everyone understood what we're showing was just for feedback, and not for a decision."
Now, the Boundary Task Force will go back to the drawing board using their new information. The Boundary Task Force met Jan. 11 to construct a new map, and will meet again Jan. 19 to double-check the criteria and test for feasibility, specifically in regards to bus routes and route times.
The Boundary Task Force's draft map will then be made available online for public viewing and comment starting Jan. 24 on the district website. WL-WV will send out further information and a link to the proposal via Listserv, giving the public further opportunity for input before the Boundary Task Force brings a recommendation to the school board Feb. 6. There, the board will discuss and vote on the proposed boundaries.