Columbia Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education Ben Tilley began his presentation to the Columbia Public Schools Board of Education with a little physics. Every action the board makes in drawing boundary lines, he said, with have an equal, but opposite, reaction.
Tilley is the organizing member of a committee of parents, district professionals and community members tasked by the Board to establish attendance areas for six elementary schools affected by the construction of Beulah Ralph Elementary, slated to open its doors in southwest Columbia in 2016. Tilley’s presentation at Thursday’s work session was about the most recent version of the committee’s plan, which they recommended to the Board for approval.
The plan is the fourth iteration of a map that’s taken the committee almost six months to perfect. It shows the seven school boundaries—Fairview, Russell, Grant, Mill Creek, Rock Bridge, Mary Paxton Keeley and the new Beulah Ralph--in pink, blue, brown, green and yellow sprawls that have been an emotional battle to establish.
Tom Stone, a parent at Fairview Elementary, said he was most impressed with the data the committee had to work with; it made the many drafting sessions of the planning maps go a little faster.
“The data was able to be so exact,” he said. “We could boil down to see what changes would be almost in real time.”
The biggest issues the committee faced were keeping attendance at each school under capacity, balancing free and reduced lunch and ELL students, maintaining a sense of community within each school and neighborhood and making sure that parents were informed along the way.
Committee activities were regularly posted to the Columbia Public School’s website, along with draft of boundary maps, said Tilley.
The most difficult issue for committee member Steve Hollis, a parent at Russell Elementary and was working to balance demographics.
“I think this speaks to a larger issue that we’ve got to tackle,” he said. “We need a better solution going forward. We can’t keep doing this by ad hoc committee. We need a standing committee.”
Hollis said being on the committee made it clear to him that issues in Columbia’s schools are intertwined with the city’s growth and development. Building schools far from the urban center, he said, won’t help to balance demographics in schools.
“We shouldn’t be encouraging and rewarding urban sprawl, which is causing the problems we’re dealing with now,” he said.
Tilley said there will still be room for comment from the Board and the public between now and when the Board will vote on the plan for approval in April.
“We will see what issues will arise from this,” he said, “but we want to be able to be responsive to those. We want individuals to feel like their voices are heard, that is why we insisted on having individuals who are living in those communities as part of the committee.”
But Tilley and the committee feel confident that the Board will approve this plan, perhaps with only minor changes, at the meeting on April 13th.
Many members shared the sentiment that most Columbia families love their schools. Reluctance to leave a school will hopefully be countered with appreciation for a new school.
“We love Fairview,” said Stone, “and I think all the schools in the district are that good.”