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Viewpoint: School district should stop pitting neighborhoods against choice programs

Viewpoint

The South Washington County School District has begun the process of redrawing middle school boundaries. Notwithstanding a well-intended framework, the process began to run afoul of fair-minded, democratic principles early on.

The trouble surrounds a major boundary drafting priority imposed by the School Board during its April 6, 2017, meeting. During the meeting, the Board prioritized relocation of the Spanish Immersion program for grades 6-8 from its current home at Cottage Grove Middle School (a below-capacity school) to Woodbury Middle School (an above-capacity school). This illogical measure will set aside 150 seats at Woodbury Middle School for Spanish immersion students who live across the district, and in some cases, outside of the district. Forcing Spanish immersion students to move into a space constrained Woodbury school causes a ripple effect that ultimately pushes neighborhoods kids into schools outside of their own communities. Worse still, the middle school Spanish immersion relocation priority compromises the remaining boundary process objectives that actually serve the good of the entire district. Among the most important of these remaining objectives is maximizing cohorts of students as they graduate from one school to the next. A consistent cohort system is something that we all want for our children.

The School Board's rationale at its April 6, 2017, meeting was that the district owes it to Spanish immersion to follow through with the proposed middle school relocation because this outcome was promised to voters in the 2015 bond referendum. Moving Spanish immersion would create a pure feeder system for Spanish immersion students; a pure feeder system is the best possible outcome for any given cohort. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of referendum voters likely never imagined that passage of Question 2 would lead to compromised treatment of other, equally deserving cohort groups in the boundary process.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals very recently issued an opinion on a similar referendum-related argument raised in the BOLD lawsuit against Stillwater Area Public Schools. The court held that the official purpose and scope of a school district referendum is defined by the ballot language itself. This opinion reinforces the concept that district propaganda, political promises, and the information we pass along to one another on the sidelines at youth sports games are not official or accurate representations of broad voter intent.

The district's rationale also relies on its 2014 Long Range Facilities Plan. The plan calls for ultimate relocation of Spanish immersion to Woodbury Middle School. However, when the plan was adopted three years ago, space constraints were predicted at Cottage Grove Middle School. The planning committee relied on this factor when it made its determination to relocate Spanish immersion. Space constraints no longer exist at Cottage Grove Middle School; in fact, the opposite is now true. It simply makes no sense to move a choice program out an underutilized school and into an overcrowded school, where space is at a premium due to population concentration. Consider the example of the district's Gateway Program. In the 2014 plan, Gateway is slated to relocate from Bailey Elementary to Woodbury Elementary so as to help alleviate space issues. Shortly after passage of the plan, circumstances changed and Gateway was instead moved to Valley Crossing. This deviation from the plan made sense because the district saw a more pressing need to fill space at Valley Crossing. The Gateway move proved to be very successful, and the same good sense and logic ought to be applied to Spanish immersion.

The School Board describes its prioritization of the Spanish immersion relocation as a guardrail in the boundary process. In reality, the measure is functioning as a roadblock preventing drafters from proposing a common sense plan that equitably serves the entire district. Sadly, this roadblock is also alienating a valuable choice program, which is an important asset to the district, from those who have been compromised by its prioritization. I urge the School Board to forever stop pitting neighborhood groups against choice programs, take down the roadblock, and serve as a voice for your constituency; you represent all of us.

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