Uneven enrollment has De Soto School District facing a balancing act

11/19/2013 3:13 PM

11/19/2013 3:13 PM

The De Soto School District must solve uneven enrollment across the district, and parents are worried that district officials will redraw school boundaries, moving their children from schools in Shawnee to those in De Soto.

The district, which serves De Soto, Shawnee, Lenexa and Olathe, must balance both rural and dense suburban populations. In heavily populated Shawnee, Mill Valley High School will reach its capacity of 1,500 students by the 2015-2016 school year and is expected to continue to grow. But the smaller rural De Soto High School is projected to have stagnant enrollment for the next five years, hovering around the mid-600s to low-700s, or about 170 below capacity.

The problem is true at other schools as well. Monticello Trails Middle in Shawnee is expected to reach capacity next year, grow to above capacity and then drop down again over three years. Lexington Trails Middle School in De Soto — a building with capacity for 720 students — has just slightly more than 300 students enrolled this year. And that number will fall to about 270 by the 2016-2017 school year.

The district’s seven elementary schools are all projected to be well below capacity for the next five years.

To find a solution to this problem the school board agreed in June 2012 to pay $53,700 to RSP and Associates LLC, a Leawood-based consulting firm, for an enrollment study and to facilitate enrollment committee meetings.

The district formed a 52-member committee made up of parents from each school, teachers, a few district board members, high school students and even Shawnee, De Soto and Lenexa city representatives. The committee has met three times with a fourth meeting in December before planned public hearings on Dec. 18 and 19.

But progress has been slow and burdened by unclear expectations, said parents who were concerned that the school board wants the committee to redraw boundary lines.

This was a major issue for parents, especially Shawnee residents because of the longer drive to De Soto High School, said Tony Lauer, a Shawnee resident with three sons, two of them in elementary school and a third who will start next year.

Lauer’s drive to Mill Valley High School is about 5 minutes, but the drive to De Soto is closer 20 to 25 minutes, depending on the traffic, an average he said is true for most Shawnee residents.

“When we moved into this neighborhood we wanted the school to be right around the block,” he said. “Driving to De Soto is just too far.”

For many parents, Lauer said, there is not only concern about the logistics of transporting children but also safety worries, with the potential increase in number of high school-aged drivers on Kansas 7 and Kansas 10.

Parents are particularly worried about a planned but yet unfinished expansion of De Soto High School. In 2008 voters approved a $75 million bond for expansion and upgrades at several district schools including Mill Valley and De Soto high schools.

The De Soto High School project was divided into three phases, with the final phase being mostly additional classrooms. That expansion, amounting to about $16 million, has not been started yet.

Some members of the enrollment committee say the expansion only makes sense if boundaries are changed to send more students to the district’s schools in De Soto.

The concerns about boundary changes prompted district spokesman Alvie Cater to ask the school board last week to clarify the committee’s mission and the expansion project.

Through discussion, the board agreed that the committee should look at all possible options, not just redistricting. The rest of the expansion is on hold for now and the board has no plans to continue it in the near future.

“It would not be in our best interest to continue with the third phase (of the project) because the enrollment isn’t there,” said Angela Handy, who sits on both the school board and the enrollment committee. “It depends on what the committee decides, and we need to hear all the options.”

The enrollment committee then met and came up with several creative ideas to solve the enrollment imbalance: a voluntary transfer program where De Soto High School would offer exclusive classes in hopes of luring students; using modular classrooms for a temporary fix at over-crowded schools and a sixth-grade only school to help unify the school district and take pressure off of crowded middle schools.

“Changing the (boundary) lines is one idea, but it’s not the only idea,” Cater said.

Some committee members are frustrated with the process governing such an important — and controversial — issue as school boundaries.

Lauer said the committee needs more enrollment data.

RSP and Associates did an enrollment study in 2012 and projected figures at each school for the next five years but the committee wants longer projections.

Cater said the district paid RSP to do a five-year study because that is the most accurate time frame, but if the committee wanted extended data, the board would consider doing a fresh study. The problem with longer rage studies, he said, is that data becomes unreliable as it reaches the 10-year mark.

“There’s a lot the has to be considered,” Cater said. “What if there is another recession or what if the economy improves and development booms again?”

Lauer is also unhappy with questions the RSP facilitators pose to the committee. The questions are often over simplified or confusing, along the lines of, “Do you think there are too many students and Mill Valley High School?” and “Should students be moved out of School A and School B to another school?” The committee is then asked to chose from two options or a small list of options.

“This isn’t a black and white issue. It’s very complicated,” Lauer said. “Some committee members have voiced out that they don’t understand or think there are more possible answers.”

RSP and Associates did not respond to a request for comment.

Cater said the questions were designed to gauge the committee’s opinion at a particular time and the questions would continue to evolve and change with each new meeting.

“I wouldn’t put too much into those questions just yet,” he said.

Will Stelle, a Lenexa parent of fourth- and eighth-graders, also is concerned about the amount of time the committee has been able to discuss the enrollment issue.

So far the committee has met for about five hours, Stelle said, but has really only spent 30 minutes actively talking about ideas.

Stelle said the problem is that each of the 52 committee members is only given one minute to present, but the facilitators take the majority of the time posing the disputed questions or talking about irrelevant things. To find the best solution to the district’s enrollment issue, he said, the committee must be able to share and hear ideas more fluidly.

“This is about finding a stable solution for the future,” he said. “My daughter in the fourth grade should know where she’ll go to middle school and where she’ll go to high school.”

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