Fayette superintendent Shelton offers early thoughts on school redistricting

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comMarch 2, 2014 

As officials determine new boundaries for Fayette County Public Schools, the goal will be not to have rich schools or poor schools.

Fayette County Public Schools Superintendent Tom Shelton said he wants diverse schools but he does not want to transport students "from far ends of the county to the other."

"I don't see us looking at a major busing plan ...where we would bus kids into and out of an area," Shelton said.

In a interview last week Shelton offered some early thoughts about the redistricting process. The process of redistricting all of Lexington's public-school boundaries is needed because of a new high school on Winchester Road and two new elementary schools, one north of Interstate 75 and the other on Georgetown Road. Officials said the elementary schools should open in fall 2016; the high school should open in fall 2017.

Determining where students go to school will likely be a delicate issue, one parents will feel passionate about. That's largely why the school board adopted at a meeting Monday guidelines to assign students to a school.

Shelton noted at Monday night's board meeting that there are students in Fayette County who can see a school from their home that they don't get to attend. A redistricting committee, which will be named in the coming months, will try to find a way to assign students to schools that are as close to their homes as possible, Shelton said.

However, a top priority for the members of the redistricting committee will be to look at the current makeup of a particular school to ensure the students enrolled are economically diverse.

Shelton said district officials want to avoid situations in which one side of the street in a given subdivision is going to one school and the other side of the street is going to another school.

The steering committee will look at what the capacity of a specific school should be, along with the locations of the new schools in Fayette County, Shelton said.

The district has been growing by an average 750 students each year for the past several years, said district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall. Several middle and high schools are overcapacity. Many elementary schools are full and as new students move into that school's district, they are sent to an alternate school. Redistricting could change that, district officials say.

Under redistricting, not every area of Lexington will see as much movement.

Some redistricting has occurred in Fayette every time an elementary school was built, said Shelton.

For example, when Wellington Elementary was built, redistricting affected the attendance boundaries at Stonewall ,Clays Mill, and Picadome.

"I don't think we'll have to hit areas in certain places that have been adjusted," he said.

Areas of high growth will be more affected.

There will likely be substantial movement in the Hamburg area, where a new elementary school and the new Winchester Road high school will be built.

"We want to get ahead of the growth curve. We know that Masterson Station is growing just like the Hamburg area. That's the reason for putting a new elementary on Georgetown Road," Shelton said.

Shelton would like a proposed redistricting plan to be completed by March 2015 so parents will have enough notice over whether their children will be transferring when the new schools open in 2016 and 2017.

In addition to determining the new zones, district officials will have to decide whether students are allowed to stay at their old school and for what reason, Deffendall said.

In addition to economic balance and keeping kids close to home, the guidelines also direct the committee to consider how to regulate sending students to an alternate school if their neighborhood school is full or if they need a specific program that is not offered at their neighborhood school.

Another goal is to have specific elementary schools feeding into the same middle school and specific middle schools feeding into the same high schools.

"We are taking all of these components and trying to do the best possible thing for our students,'' school board vice chair Melissa Bacon said at last Monday's board meeting.

The steering committee for redistricting will include school board members, business leaders, Equity Council members, parents, Realtors, home builders, principals and city planning officials. The members will be recruited immediately, Shelton said.

Urban County Planning Director Chris King said he had not talked to district officials yet about the steering committee. But King said his staff often works with the district to determine where population growth might occur and how that affects redistricting.

Linda Wiley, president of the Lexington Bluegrass Association of Realtors Board, said school assignments are important to many prospective homebuyers. Some have even told her they don't care "what a home is like" as long as it is in the school district that they want to attend.

Wiley said local real estate agents direct homeowners to the Fayette County Public Schools for questions about school assignment zones instead of trying to provide information that could change.

"We make it very very clear to the buyers that if that is of interest to them they need to call the school system for all redistricting information," said Wiley.

According to an August 2013 article on the Realtor.com website, a survey of nearly 1,000 prospective home buyers showed that 91 percent said school boundaries were important in their search.

According to the survey results, one out of five buyers would give up a bedroom or a garage for a better school. One out of three would buy a smaller home. One out of five home buyers said they would pay 6 to 10 percent above their budget for the right school, the article said.

District officials are aware that if schools are underperforming, parents aren't comfortable sending their children there, the superintendent said.

While some schools do need to improve, Shelton said major advances are being made at several Fayette County schools that have had low test scores in the past.

A school that might be viewed as underperforming because of previously low scores, could now have a completely refurbished building and a principal and teachers who are excelling, he said.

Shelton said he encourages parents to visit a school and meet principals and teachers before they make a judgement.

"I respect a parent's right obviously to look for what they believe is best for their child, but I always want to make sure they've at least checked out the options," he said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter:@vhspears

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