March 3, 2014

At public hearing, Union residents detail redistricting concerns

Union County parents and students opposed to countywide school redistricting plans got their chance to sound off at a public hearing Monday night.

Union County parents and students opposed to countywide school redistricting plans got their chance to sound off at a public hearing Monday night.

The controversial proposal is meant to combat overcrowding. If approved by the school board, Union’s first countywide redistricting would require about 5,800 out of 41,800 students, some 14 percent of the total population, to switch schools.

Monday’s packed meeting at Parkwood High was the second of two public hearings in recent days. More than 60 people had signed up to speak.

Caleigh Mackinnon, a Weddington Middle student, asked school administrators how they could sleep at night with the changes they are considering.

“Even at age 13, I’m not witnessing loyalty and commitment from those who oversee our schools,” she said. “You have the choice to do what’s right.”

The crowd responded with a loud standing ovation, a move that greeted many speakers.

She ran out of allotted speaking time, but another speaker allowed Mackinnon to finish.

“If you vote for redistricting, you are taking away our hopes, dreams and freedom.” Then addressing Superintendent Mary Ellis and referring to a classic novel, she said, “And remember Dr. Ellis, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

One of the few people who spoke for redistricting, Brenda Jacobson, said kids are adaptable to change and chastised the board for ignoring the needs of older schools such as the Sun Valley cluster.

“But I forgot you had your hands full with these parents” who oppose redistricting.

Her statement was met with gasps and boos.

Several speakers asked the board to come up with a long-term solution to overcrowding instead of redistricting. One parent made her plea in rhyme.

Another parent, John Johnson, said the redistricting plan was dividing communities and families, causing emotional distress for many people.

Kristi Gaines, one of the scheduled speakers, agreed with Johnson’s assessment. She said she worried about the psychological effect redistricting would have on children.

Several other students were scheduled to speak, including seventh-grader Alyssa Biancardi, who attends Weddington Middle but would need to switch schools under the redistricting plan.

“I feel very comfortable at my middle school and don’t want to have to make new friends,” she said before the meeting.

It is not clear when the school board will take a final vote on the issue, although school officials have said a decision is needed by April.

Parents have been worried about the disruption for their children, having them attend lower-performing schools or even seeing their property values drop if their neighborhood is associated with a different school.

Three of the district’s 53 schools already are at maximum capacity and have had their enrollment capped this school year.

Last week, the school board did not take another vote on an offer by county commissioners to provide $3 million to buy 49 mobile units to help avoid redistricting.

The school board had rejected the offer in mid-February, saying it was concerned there were strings attached. Late last week, county commissioners formalized their offer in a written agreement that stated the money was not linked to a school funding court case between the two boards that commissioners had lost.

Parent Christie Fletcher said it seemed like the county commissioners were the only ones listening to parents’ concerns. She urged the board to accept the $3 million, slow down, find better alternatives and work in a more collaborative way with residents.

It is unclear whether the school board will address that issue at its regular meeting Tuesday, although school leaders have said the mobile units will not eliminate the need for some redistricting. The board also plans to discuss redistricting and overcrowding at the meeting.

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