For the past two school years, Meredith Gilbert tried to get her son into an international baccalaureate program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
After that didn’t work out, she and her husband decided to move to Union County, mainly for the schools. But they might not ever live in the home they are building in Waxhaw.
Union County schools is considering a countywide redistricting plan to deal with overcrowding, which would require about 5,800 students out of 41,800 to change schools. The school board will return to the issue on Tuesday, and is expected to make a final decision by April.
The potential disruption has prompted people like Gilbert to rethink their decision to ditch CMS. Hundreds of parents have crowded into school board and county commissioner meetings, distributed buttons and created social media pages to voice their displeasure. One man even led a group that created a 146-page report against redistricting.
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“We’re not happy with redistricting,” Gilbert said. “If it goes through, we’ll be back in Mecklenburg. We’re willing to lose money and break our contract.”
Some parents are upset that their kids might go to lower-performing schools, while others worry that property values could drop if they are forced to change schools. Many simply don't want their kids’ lives to be disrupted by having to switch schools.
If approved in its current form, Union’s first countywide redistricting would impact 14 percent of the student population. And that makes Julie Mastbrook nervous.
She lives in Charlotte’s Arboretum area. With two of her four boys already in school, the family wanted a bigger home and had considered moving to Marvin, attracted by Union County schools and lower property taxes.
Not any more. With redistricting looming, Mastbrook said, “the uncertainty’s not worth the risk.”
Union County was once one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties. While growth has slowed considerably in recent years, the current school population is still more than double what it was in 1997-98, and even 63 percent greater than it was during the 2002-03 school year.
And capacity still remains a concern. Three of 53 schools reached their maximum capacity this school year and had enrollment capped.
At a school board meeting last week, Superintendent Mary Ellis acknowledged how potentially devastating redistricting could be for some children.
‘We still want them’
Across the county line, a seemingly constant need to revise district boundaries drove some parents to suburban school districts such as Union’s. CMS officials said the 2012-13 school year marked the first time in nearly a decade that there was no need to redo boundaries, shuffle magnet schools, build new schools or close old ones.
But CMS and the suburban counties aren’t in competition for students and families, CMS school board members Tom Tate and Rhonda Lennon said. These days, they said, the bigger competition is students transferring to charter schools in Mecklenburg County.
Even so, Union school board Vice Chair Marce Savage worries about families who might leave because of redistricting.
“It’s hard to see people say ‘we put our faith in the school district, but we have to leave,’ ” said Savage, who opposes redistricting. “You never want to see that happen.”
She hopes the district can still draw families from neighboring counties and all over. “We still want them,” Savage said. “We have a good thing going and would love to be able to share that with more students.”
Some people who left CMS welcome redistricting.
The changes wouldn’t affect Ashley Todd’s family directly. But the Indian Trail development where she lives is still adding homes. New families in her community would not attend the middle school where the rest of the neighborhood goes because that school hit its maximum capacity and its enrollment was capped.
Todd, however, believes redistricting is the most efficient way to relieve overcrowding and deal with county growth.
“In Charlotte, redistricting happened a lot. I’m surprised by all the backlash” in Union County, she said. “No one told us we were zoned for this school forever.”
The reputation of Union’s schools was one of the main reasons Erik Winkler and his family moved from the Ballantyne area to Waxhaw in the fall. They have one child in school and another who starts kindergarten next year.
Winkler had heard rumors about redistricting but felt safe because his family lived close to a school. Yet his kids would attend a different school under redistricting, one that is farther away and with lower test scores.
“If I had known about this, I never would’ve bought that house and I would’ve stayed in Mecklenburg until I had a better understanding about what the plans were,” Winkler said.
For Rebekah Grube, leaving CMS was an easy decision when her family moved to Wesley Chapel in 2010. She and her husband liked the schools as well as the lower taxes in a more rural area.
But redistricting means her kids would move to another school and triple the length of their bus ride. The family won’t move, and Grube said they are considering other alternatives, such as charter schools or home schooling.
Gilbert, who is building a home in Waxhaw, said redistricting came as a surprise. Like some others opposed to the move, she worries about changes in property values, in addition to her sons attending a lower-performing school.
“We thought (Union) was the most stable situation, that you couldn’t go wrong,” she said. “Right now, I’m not feeling confident” about how it will all work out.