Boundary neighborhood changes

This map shows the neighborhoods that will change attendance area schools in fall 2020 when the new boundaries go into effect.

Next year’s fifth graders will be able to stay at their current school, even if their attendance area changes in the new maps.

The Verona Area school board voted 4-3 to allow families to choose whether to keep their children at their current elementary school for their final year, or move them with the new boundary. The decision affects 76 students, most of whom are currently in the Country View Elementary School attendance area.

“We have the ability to offer a choice, and I think that’s better than mandating one way or the other,” said board president Noah Roberts, one of the four votes in favor.

New attendance areas, approved this summer, will go into effect for the 2020-21 school year as the new Verona Area High School opens. Badger Ridge Middle School and Core Knowledge Charter School will shift into the current high school building, with New Century School and Verona Area International School moving to the K-Wing.

Sugar Creek Elementary School will move to the current BRMS building – significantly increasing its capacity to more than 700.

Parents of affected students will have to make their choice by Dec. 1 so the administration can begin to plan bus routes and classes. Board members stressed that staff need to be proactive in reaching out to the families to make sure they know about the decision and deadline.

The district had been estimating 58 students would be eligible for the grandfathering until Saturday, when new data from the current school year indicated 76 fifth-graders will be in changing attendance zones next year.

The board was considering three options when the meeting began Saturday: mandatory grandfathering for fifth-graders, no grandfathering for fifth-graders and an option for parents. Board members agreed shortly into their discussion to eliminate mandatory grandfathering from consideration.

They used the mandatory grandfathering as a measuring stick at one end of the extreme, board members explained, which allowed them to receive some estimates of potential transportation costs from staff.

Superintendent Dean Gorrell reported Badger Bus’ best estimate would be three to four new bus routes with either mandatory grandfathering or no grandfathering – at about $55,000 per route, that would use up most of the operating referendum funding allotted for new busing costs. He stressed that it was an estimate and could be higher once the actual routes are determined.

“Whether it’s one or two routes or one, two or three routes can literally depend on the residence of one student,” Gorrell said. “It isn’t just a capacity issue, it’s also a timing issue.”

That meant “no functional difference” in busing between mandatory grandfathering and no grandfathering, as Roberts put it, and staff reported no capacity issues expected based on the number of fifth-graders the decision applies to. Board members agreed mandatory grandfathering had the potential of unintended family duress, as parents whose fifth-graders have younger siblings would have two schools to work with.

“We’re down to a number of students that I feel like the decision should be handed over the parents to make that best decision for their individual students,” Meredith Stier Christensen said.

The choice option allows parents of the 36 fifth-graders in that situation to fix that if they want to by sending their fifth-grader to the new attendance area.

Board member Kristina Navarro-Haffner stressed her desire to limit disruption and supported grandfathering beyond fifth-grade, but she understood the rest of the board did not consider that feasible.

“Allowing the fifth graders this choice for one year is, I guess, a gradual step toward the map next year,” she said. “The power of authentic relationship and the value I have for continuity for those students is worth that one year, then, to get everyone to the new maps.”

Board member Tom Duerst has consistently advocated against grandfathering, including this year, when the board approved a phased-in approach for the new middle school maps. Saturday, he said hindsight has proven him right on grandfathering decisions in past years.

“In the years past, when I’ve lost on these – which I’ve lost every time on these votes – people have always approached me and said, ‘Why did they do that? That was stupid,’” Duerst said. “There always seems to be unintended consequences with decisions like this.”

Board members Amy Almond and Deborah Biddle voted with him, with Almond saying she wanted to “honor the committee’s work from the last year” and move to the new maps.

“This district has done a really good job overall in allowing parents to make choices,” Almond said. “It doesn’t feel as nice when the district says, ‘We have to just do this, we have to just make this change.’”

Board member Carolyn Jahnke was the swing vote, as Roberts, Navarro-Haffner and Stier Christensen had all spoken clearly in favor of offering a choice, Biddle and Duerst clearly against and Almond seemingly leaning against during discussion before the vote.

Jahnke spoke last of the group, and said she was “trying to balance the choice” she made in the middle school vote weeks earlier – in favor of a mandatory phase-in over three years – with the consideration Saturday.

“I’m struggling with that, because it feels a little hypocritical,” she said.

Roberts said the “different scale and context” made it not hypocritical.

“We’re balancing a bunch of things that matter: Continuity matters, options for parents matters,” Roberts said. “If I could do the phased approach, I would, but it’s not feasible.”

Stier Christensen encouraged parents to consider what moving or not moving would mean both for fifth grade and for sixth grade. If they were in a different middle school attendance area than their current elementary school, she said, that extra year of relationship building by moving early could be valuable.

Whatever choice parents make, she and the rest of the board expressed confidence in the district’s staff to make it the best situation possible.

“I know our elementary schools will do whatever they can to help you see what a wonderful environment your child will transition to,” she said.

Contact Scott Girard at ungreporter@wcinet.com and follow him on Twitter @sgirard9.