Are transfers to blame for overcrowding in school district?
Of all the hot button topics that have been debated during the recent West Linn-Wilsonville School Board election, none have been as heavily discussed and scrutinized as capacity issues across some of the district's schools.
Of the district's 9,742 students, 673 are transfer students. That number includes inter-district transfers — students granted release from their local school district and given permission to enter WL-WV by district staff — as well as students who entered via House Bill 3681, which is better known as open enrollment and is controlled by the board. Transfer students are spread out over all 15 of WL-WV's schools in grades K-12, but the district and board's handling of transfer students has come into question, with some speculating whether there would even be a need for a new school were there fewer transfer students in WL-WV schools.
"I think it's really important to understand that 600-plus number, is a number that entails transfers over 13 years," says WL-WV School Board Chair Keith Steele, who is in his eighth and final year on the board. "Once (a student enters the district) you're in, so many of those kids came into the district before any of (the current board) were serving on the board and were ever here.
"(The board) has only had influence over (transfer students) the last four years. Mostly what people talk about in transfers are those under House Bill 3681 (open enrollment), which was passed in the 2011 legislative session. Prior to that, the board really had no visibility of the transfers under (former superintendent Roger Woehl)."
Both Steele and current board member Rob Fernandez were part of the school board in 2012 when the decision was made to participate in open enrollment for the first time. The board approved opening 255 slots for transfers via open enrollment in 2012, an additional 180 slots in 2013 and 200 more slots in 2014. Steele says the decision to participate in open enrollment year-to-year wasn't easy, but that the recession and need for new revenue sources forced the board's hand.
"For me, I was in the 2008-09 budget session and I remember passing resolutions where we were laying off 45-50 positions in a single crack. It was bad back then," he says. "We were looking at cutting $3-5 million out of our budget, and like it or not, this is sort of an ugly truth on how the state of Oregon funds its schools. From that 600 or so students in our district right now, they generate about $4.5 million of revenue for the school district."
The board has allowed fewer open enrollment transfers in recent years, limiting transfers to siblings of currently enrolled students. Under the open enrollment law — which was scheduled to sunset in 2017 but was extended through 2018 — districts can place students at any of their schools, prompting the board to close Rosemont and Trillium Creek Primary from any transfers this coming year. The board also voted on traditional transfers for the first time this past April, opting to allow only siblings of current WL-WV out-of-district students — a reaction to overcrowding at Rosemont Ridge in particular.
"At that point in time maybe it was the greedy thing to do but there was an opportunity to bring money in, instead of losing $4.5-5 million of revenue per year. ... We obviously didn't want to build a new school to accommodate them, because that has all kinds of issues with it, but if you have plenty of capacity in existing schools where you don't have to do that and it doesn't increase fixed costs, then why not?"
Are transfers to blame?
Regardless of the reasons for allowing so many transfer students into the district, there's no debating that 673 is a big number compared to similar school districts across the state. Reynolds School District has a total of 121 transfer students, 34 from open enrollment. Redmond had 112 students enter via open enrollment in 2015-16, but also had 283 leave during the same period.
Roseburg had 203 students transfer in and 235 students transfer out in 2015-16. McMinnville has a total of just 10 transfer students in its district, five coming under open enrollment, and Sherwood participated in open enrollment just once, in 2012-13, accepting eight students. Corvallis has 342 students who entered via inter-district transfers, but has never participated in open enrollment. Lake Oswego, arguably the school district most similar to WL-WV in terms of size and performance, has 178 students in its district who entered under open enrollment and 65 more inter-district transfer students.
"We don't accept students under open enrollment but we do offer seats to out-of-district transfer students during the month of March," Operations Assistant Cindy Degasse, who oversees transfer students for the Corvallis School District. "Those students may not get their first choice of school, however, based on class sizes and capacity in their school."
A smaller piece of WL-WV's decision to allow so many open enrollment students in 2011 and 2012 related to dwindling enrollment at Bolton and Cedaroak Park primaries. In December of 2012, Bolton had a reported enrollment of 279 but by December of 2014 Bolton's enrollment jumped to 378 — its capacity is roughly 450. Steele says he can't speak on behalf of the entire board from that time, but he wanted to avoid closing any of its existing schools, filling Bolton in particular with more than 100 open enrollment students. Lake Oswego School District officials say LOSD took the opposite approach, deciding to close a primary school for a time instead of allowing large numbers of open enrollment students.
Many of those Bolton open enrollment students are now in middle school, including Rosemont Ridge, but Steele says they're not to blame for overcrowding. Instead, Steele points to data collected by the Long Range Planning Committee that shows the bigger factor has been empty nesters in West Linn selling their homes to young families — something the district can't accurately predict or plan for.
The district's newest school, Meridian Creek, will open in Wilsonville this fall and was planned to help crowding at Wood and Rosemont middle schools — as well as accommodate growth as the future Frog Pond area is built out.
Wood is more than 100 students over capacity and Rosemont nearly 150. Yet the district's proposal to redraw boundaries so Meridian would open with close to its 450-student (the district intends to expand the school in the future) capacity to help that overcrowding drew objections from parents who did not want their child to attend a school outside their neighborhood.
Superintendent Kathy Ludwig said during an April 10 school board meeting that district staff anticipates Meridian Creek to get close to 450 students within five years, with enrollments at Rosemont and Athey Creek Middle School stabilizing in turn. Meridian Creek's opening enrollment numbers could still change as families move in and out of the district prior to the first day of school, but in the short-term it appears as if Rosemont will continue to battle overcrowding issues.
The recent boundary adjustments included "choice zones" for families at specific primary schools, giving them options regarding which middle school students attend. The choice zones were created following public criticism from families of Willamette and Bolton primaries who didn't want to split their school into two middle schools. The 673 transfer students are spread out K-12 across WL-WV, with fewer than 200 of those spread out among the three middle schools.
Effectiveness of the Long Range Planning Committee
In addition to the issue of transfer students, the purpose and effectiveness of the Long Range Planning Committee is something that's come into question during the boundary process and current school board race. The committee has existed in WL-WV for more than 20 years, with the first Long Range Plan finalized in 1996. That Long Range Plan helps the district and board plan for projected enrollment in the form of new schools, including Meridian Creek. Some have questioned whether the new middle school was properly sited, however, con-
sidering it will open approximately 130 students under capacity. Fernandez acknowledges the LRPC is not perfect, but that it's also a big reason the district has been successful in getting bonds passed and schools built throughout the years.
Citizen committees such as WL-WV's Long Range Planning Committee are unique as far as school districts in Oregon go. According to Fernandez, many districts prefer long range planning to remain a district staff process, but Fernandez says WL-WV has long believed the public should have some sort of public input on major decisions such as facilities planning.
Whether improvements to the current process could be made, Steele's not sure, but Fernandez says it's a function of the district he's thankful for.
"Why I think it's so important is that with any enterprise, to have that kind of strategic thinking, as imprecise as it may be when you look out 15-20 years, it also translates into options for us. Boards well before us had the foresight to buy land throughout the district," he says. "I'm glad that our district is willing to take that kind of risk and do that. It's kind of easy to use the Long Range Planning Committee as a punching bag a little bit, but I think we would be in a much different place if we didn't have it."
Looking toward the future
Overcrowding of middle schools is just the start for WL-WV, as the district is already looking ahead to West Linn High School, where enrollment is steadily growing. WLHS is up to 1,805 students — 70 are open enrollment or inter-district transfer students — and Ludwig has said she plans to form a task force in the fall to explore future high school options as the district continues to grow.
During an April work session that included the board and the LRPC, Ludwig said the task force will look at all options, including the possibility of building a comprehensive new high school, but that creative alternatives will also
be looked at. Operations Director Tim Woodley indicated 2019 is the first year the district can go out for another construction bond, with increased capacity for high school students one of the district's top priorities.
If the district decides 2019 is the right time to go out for another bond, Woodley said WL-WV would likely hold a lengthy bond summit to garner community input. That process would bring the LRPC and concerns about school capacities back into the forefront. Until then, the district will continue to lean on the processes and committees like the Long-Range Planning Committee that it's relied on for years.