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In era of stagnant growth, school overcrowding baffles parents


Sam Morris

Erica Gil and her children, from left, Alexa, Madison, Ryan and Justin, are seen in their home Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012. The Gil’s, who purchased their home based on the school district, are in danger of having their school district rezoned.

Updated Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012 | 3:03 a.m.

CCSD Rezoning

Students make their way to buses after classes at Del Webb Middle School Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Every weekday morning Tiffany Leard walks 10 minutes from her Henderson home to Del Webb Middle School located less than a mile away.

Next year, the 11-year-old sixth-grader might be bussed more than three miles away to Bob Miller Middle School if her neighborhood is rezoned under a Clark County School District proposal to alleviate overcrowding at Del Webb.

The attendance zone proposal baffles Tiffany’s father, Kelley Leard, who moved his family from Summerlin to Henderson eight years ago specifically for the area schools — ranked among the best in the valley. Never did he fathom his house — located in the housing development just next to Del Webb — would be rezoned to any other school.

“It’s just nuts. It doesn’t make any sense,” the real estate agent said. “How could you zone us out of these schools when they’re just down the street. You’re either just messing with the kids or not planning well enough. Either way, they’re screwing up our lives.”

Of all the hot-button issues facing a school district, only a few things are more contentious than redrawing attendance zone boundaries and reassigning students to a different campus. Yet it’s a nightmarish exercise that the School District engages in annually, even as student enrollment districtwide has stabilized in recent years.

During the boom era, when the Las Vegas Valley was the fastest-growing region in the nation, neighborhoods were rezoned regularly as new schools were built.

At its peak, the School District was opening a school every month, shuffling thousands of students around to bright, shiny campuses.

With the economic downturn, student population growth is at a plateau districtwide. Las Vegans who were able to upgrade to larger homes in the past were now stuck in underwater homes and outsiders no longer wished to move to the economically beleaguered city.

However, there are still pockets of growth in certain areas — notably in the south and southwest valley as some families move into more affordable or foreclosed homes. Consequently, there are some schools with lots of empty seats and others that are jam-packed with so many students that there aren’t enough lockers or textbooks to go around.

Del Webb is one of the latter schools. Built seven years ago, the Anthem middle school was designed to hold a maximum of 1,700 students. The school is currently 12 percent over capacity, and is expecting an influx of at least 100 more students next year from overcrowded elementary schools. Del Webb’s projected student count next year will be 1,926 — some Clark County high schools will have fewer students.

Hallways are so crowded at Del Webb that signs and markers have been posted to direct the massive flow of bodies during passing periods. Students — at a ratio of 35 to one teacher — cram into small classrooms. They share lockers and rely on online textbooks because there aren’t enough for each student.

Nearly two-dozen buses serve the school, lining up like ducks in the back parking lot to receive students when school lets out. Nearby, eight portable classrooms take over part of the staff parking lot.

Principal Paula Naegle says she sympathizes with parents like Leard, but doesn’t know how she will accommodate all the students enrolling at Del Webb next year. The area is hilly, making it impossible to erect more portable classrooms on the school grounds — unless they do away with the staff parking lot altogether.

“I think we’ll have to bus our teachers in,” Naegle said, half-jokingly before turning more somber. “At what point does (overcrowding) become not optimal for learning? And when do you make that tough decision to disrupt families and students?”

Rick Baldwin, the director of the district’s demographics and zoning department, has wrestled with these questions for the past 12 years. His job requires a combination of clairvoyance and careful planning as he tries to figure out solutions to fine-tune enrollment levels to equilibrium across the valley.

There are plenty of seats available for all the students — in fact, middle schools are under capacity by 14 percent districtwide, Baldwin said.

However, the empty seats aren’t in all the right places. Not all the students zoned for a school attend it with the proliferation of open enrollment, magnet and charter school options. Complicating matters is Las Vegas’ notoriously transient community: 30 percent of the 308,000 Clark County students change schools each year.

“It’s a balancing act,” Baldwin said of his rezoning efforts over the years. “We take no pleasure in doing this. I would like to be able to make everyone happy, but I don’t think that’s feasible. I don’t have a crystal ball.”

The School District can’t necessarily build new schools in overcrowded areas either, Baldwin said. The district doesn’t have the funding capacity to issue the bonds necessary to launch a new capital plan, and won’t be able to until at least 2016. Without new schools in the foreseeable future, the district is forced to move excess students among existing schools.

Baldwin, who has rezoned his own children in the past, has been tasked this year with drafting rezoning proposals for three areas in the valley with overcrowded middle schools. If approved by the School Board next month, these new attendance zones would go into effect for the 2012-13 school year.

More than 100 parents packed a public input meeting last week at Silverado High School to voice their concerns about rezoning Henderson middle schools, likely the most contentious of the three rezoning areas this year.

The district’s first proposal for the area would move nearly 800 students at five middle schools: Greenspun, Miller, Schofield, Silvestri and Del Webb. The second proposal would move just under 500 students at three schools. For the families and students being affected by the rezoning proposals, the matter was one fraught with tension and emotions.

Some parents were seemingly fed up with being rezoned several times over the past few years. One parent who lived in Henderson’s “Chimney” area was upset her child had attended four schools in the past five years due to rezoning.

Other parents, like Erica Gil, were frustrated their children would be uprooted from the schools she had spent six months researching before moving into the neighborhood. Gil’s daughter Madison, 13, is a seventh grader at Greenspun who might have to attend Schofield for her final year of middle school next fall.

Over the past two years, Madison has built strong relationships with friends and teachers at Greenspun, which Erica Gil is adamant is a better school and fit for Madison.

“I’m angry and upset we’re being force-fed something that will greatly impact our lives,” Erica Gil said. “It’s very traumatic to be ripped from your school. If you have to constantly rebuild your relationships, it’s not good for their psyche.”

“I just want to be with my friends,” Madison said. “I don’t know anyone at Schofield.”

At the Attendance Zone Advisory Commission meeting on Wednesday, committee members reflected on the public input sessions. (The 11-member committee was formed in 1994 to address rezoning issues amid the largest influx of students the region had ever seen.)

After a series of back and forth discussions about the merits of each proposal, the committee voted 6-1 to recommend that the School Board adopt the second proposal for the Henderson area, arguing it would affect the least number of students. They decided to implement "phasing," or grandfathering current students so they would not be affected by the rezoning next year. The School Board meets Feb. 28 to make its final decision.

“Del Webb is overcrowded,” said committee member Leigh Dunn. “Doing nothing is not an option.”

Leard and Gil can breathe a little easier since their children won’t be affected under the second proposal. But as the student population continues to ebb and flow among existing schools, families might find themselves back at the rezoning maps again – even if they live right next to a school, Leard said.

His daughter Tiffany was rezoned at the elementary school level a few years ago, Leard said. There's no guarantee his neighborhood is safe from rezoning in the future, he said.

“It doesn't make any sense. We’re not going through the growth anymore,” said Leard, who growing up in Ohio said rezoning was unheard of. “So, why do we have to come back and do this again and again, uprooting kids and changing lives?”

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