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Education officials consider redistricting South Hills

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Elementary schools in South Hills could soon face redistricting for the first time in more than 20 years.

Parents of Overbrook Elementary students complained at last month's Kanawha County Board of Education meeting that children are sharing textbooks, facing longer lunch lines and shorter recess breaks and are more prone to health and safety risks because of overpopulated classrooms.

Overbrook has a total of 479 students, while most neighboring elementary schools have fewer than 300. Kenna Elementary, less than two miles from Overbrook, has 187 students. Holz Elementary, a five-minute drive from Overbrook, has 297 students.

Holz opened its enrollment to Overbrook students last week to help with the overflow.

"Several kindergarten students enrolled immediately. It didn't take long for parents to seize that opportunity," said Holz principal Karen Simon. "Geographically, it makes sense. Some kids who are technically in Overbrook's district right now can walk here. It's literally a stone's throw away."

Holz can afford to absorb up to 30 students across grade levels, Simon said.

"We don't have a surplus of room over here, either. This is going to bring our classrooms to the max," she said.

The overcrowding that has plagued Overbrook for years initially sprung from the redrawing of attendance zones in 1989 as part of a countywide consolidation plan that closed South Hills' Loudendale Elementary, according to Chuck Wilson, the county's school facilities director.

When Loudendale's students moved to Holz, part of the new merged district was annexed into Overbook's territory.

The changes that were made to accommodate the merger have since gradually shifted an influx of students into Overbook, Wilson said.

"A lot has happened since then -- enrollment has grown, more space is needed for computer labs and special classes that weren't offered in the past. Populations have shifted. Space has become a premium at these schools, and today we find ourselves looking to lessen overcrowding," he said. "We will be moving some of the same addresses back to Holz if this goes through."

But school board President Pete Thaw said how it all started isn't important -- it's about the future of the schools, not the past.

Thaw, who initially voiced concern about redistricting because he believed the majority of parents did not want it, said he'd be happy to vote in favor of it as long as there's a plan that's fair for everyone.

"I don't care where it started, but I'm very interested in where it ends," he said. "I trust Dr. Duerring and the committee he's set up to decide this. I don't want to argue about it anymore, I don't want anymore yelling, I just want to see a professional plan."

Thaw said he's received numerous calls from parents about redistricting, many of whom are concerned about the effect the changes will have when students get to middle school.

Just last week, the board voted not to sign a petition in favor of South Charleston's attempts to annex Ruthlawn Elementary, also a part of the South Hills area.

Parents showed concern about middle school placement in that case, too.

"There could be all sorts of dilemmas. An overcrowded kindergarten class should not affect where someone has to go to high school," he said. "We need to do the best thing we can to reduce the size of the classes at Overbrook without making other schools suffer."

Simon said not all of the redistricting proposals laid out on the table are beneficial for schools neighboring Overbrook.

Administrators have suggested transferring an entire classroom from Overbrook to Holz, according to Simon.

Holz already uses an outdoor trailer for additional classroom space.

"That's a horrible idea. They'd be on the rooftops," Simon said. "We do not support that proposal in any way, shape or form. We only have a little bit of room in each class to offer and still be comfortable."

Wilson said the process of redistricting isn't has grueling as some staff members and parents see it.

"It's not difficult. We just have to try to make sense with bus routes. Parents would be allowed to leave their kids at Overbrook if there's sufficient space and they can provide transportation," he said. "It's important parents know that we're going to try to take this thing slow and methodical and come up with long-range solutions and involve the schools in the decision."

Some Overbrook parents said the overcrowding was due in part to families "cheating the system" in order to qualify as living in the district because of the school's standup reputation and healthy PTO budget of $30,000.

Thirty-one students living in Kanawha County are currently enrolled at Overbrook but don't live in the district, according to Johnie Winnell, computer operator for Kanawha County Schools' transportation department.

Only six to eight of those students live in surrounding districts such as Kenna, Holz, Weberwood and Ruthlawn.

Winnell says he doubts those numbers are incorrect, despite parents' claims, because they are based on addresses provided through the West Virginia Education Information System.

"WVEIS is constantly updated with students' addresses and phone numbers provided by parents' emergency contact information given to schools. If families were trying to cheat the system, they'd be risking not being located in case of an emergency. Lunch bills are sent to the address provided. I don't imagine many parents going to that extent to lie about their address," he said.

Kanawha County education officials met last week to discuss alternate bus routes and are holding another closed meeting Monday to discuss further plans. Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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