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Administration looks at redistricting in response to Overbrook overcrowding complaints

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County Board of Education administrators could consider redrawing attendance zones for Overbrook Elementary School in response to complaints that overcrowding has plagued the school for years.

Assistant Superintendent Jane Roberts said she and Superintendent Ron Duerring met with transportation officials Friday to discuss possible solutions for new bus routes to help alleviate the problem.

"We're going to start looking at redistricting scenarios. This is only a planning meeting. There won't be any decisions made," she said. "Redistricting is a very long process. It's not something administration just decides without the public. It's way too early to say what is going to happen, but we are starting the initial discussions about where busses could take some of the children."

Overbrook's PTO president Eugenie Taylor said she met with Duerring last week to discuss redistricting and possible changes to policy.

"Duerring and his staff have been working hard with the transportation department on a proposal for us parents that will provide a phase-in approach to decrease the Overbrook numbers by about 60, which is a start," she said.

"They are looking at responsible measures for addressing policies that might be contributing to the problem, as well as potentially redistricting."

Under current Kanawha County code, families who move to a different attendance area may elect to maintain residency in their student's original school.

"Duerring is very sensitive to keeping kids comfortable, and doesn't want to yank them away from their friends. He wants to protect kids who have problematic families whose only lifeline is school, and we certainly appreciate not further traumatizing a child who's already vulnerable," Taylor said.

"The heartstring stories are always there. That's wonderful until you're hurting vast numbers of other kids."

Parents are pushing for the current policy to be revised so it's dependent on enrollment numbers, Taylor said.

Kanawha County Board of Education President Pete Thaw said the South Hills area has not been redistricted in his 14 years on the board, and said Roberts is the expert on that history.

"I have no idea when redistricting occurred up there," Roberts said. "I've been in this job six years and know we haven't done any since then. It's been brought up at several board meetings, but there is never a lot of support for redistricting."

"Communication is 70 percent of their problem," Taylor said about the school board.

Overbrook Elementary has a total of 479 students. Several surrounding elementary schools in the area have under 300 students. Kenna Elementary, which is less than two miles from Overbrook, has 187 students. Holz Elementary, a five-minute-drive from Overbrook, currently has 297 students.

At a board meeting last week, Overbrook parents complained that students were forced to share textbooks and stand in longer lunch lines and are at risk of possible safety and health issues.

"Let's hope something changes before cold season hits. Every kid that sneezes is going to instantly infect 20 more because they're all sardined in there," said Taylor, who has three children enrolled at the school.

Parents have voiced concerns that a lax residency policy is to blame, and have heard rumors that some families are "cheating the system" to get their child enrolled at Overbrook, even though they don't live in the district, Taylor said.

"You have parents who live in a brand new housing development and drive past two perfectly great schools to get their kid to Overbrook," she said. "There are a lot of apartments in our district. Families don't usually live in apartments long-term, but if someone lives there for three months and submits that address, they are grandfathered into Overbrook."

Thaw said Taylor's suspicions could be true.

"You have no idea how hard it is to regulate. I hate to say this, but if you wanted to fool us, you could. You can't go into everybody's house and make sure they're sitting there," he said. "You have to investigate one-on-one and track down every rumor and make them bring in utility bills. It's difficult, but we do it."

Taylor said she was told Overbrook's principal is checking emergency contact forms to make sure addresses are eligible for the district. Currently, families only have to submit proof of residency when their child is initially enrolled -- not with the start of each school year.

But, why would families want their children to go to Overbrook instead of closer schools?

 "The school is known for a strong parent involvement. We have a healthy PTO budget of $30,000 that we are likely to add to. We also have very high quality teachers," Taylor said.

Not everyone thinks redistricting is the answer, though.

"I believe that the majority does not want to be redistricted. All of the action is coming from a small group of parents," Thaw said. "I'm not going to redistrict people who don't want to be -- that's the dilemma. I hate to vote on something that the majority doesn't want. It's not fair to tell them they've got to move."

That doesn't mean it's not a possibility, Thaw said.

"I don't know what we're going to do. I'm not saying we're not going to redistrict. I'm just saying the vast majority doesn't want it," he said. "I will do everything possible before I redistrict. I would exhaust every possible remedy."

Taylor said she and other concerned parents are feeling more confident that change is near than they have in the past.

"We're in a much more hopeful place than before, having finally heard attention is being paid to this, and there's actually a real plan that's going to have a goal and timelines," she said. "We finally feel like a responsible amount of focus has been made on what is clearly a very extreme problem."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at Mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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