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COLUMBIA — The 25 members of the Secondary Planning Enrollment Committee began meeting in January 2011. Fifteen of the members are from Columbia Public Schools, and 10 are members of the larger community.
The committee includes two Columbia School Board members and representatives from the eight schools whose boundaries are being redrawn. Chairman Don Ludwig said the remaining 10 community members had applied to be on the committee.
"The committee members were chosen because of their neutrality toward generating boundaries," Ludwig said.
On Thursday, he led an unveiling of the three boundary scenarios proposed for the district. He said the group’s activities starting in January happened as follows:
The group collected data on the schools and developed its guiding principles. These were:
- Respect and consider community input during the committee process.
- Make recommendations that benefit the entire school district.
- Balance demographics to the extent that transportation distances are reasonable.
- Strive to minimize bus and car travel with respect to time, distance and safety.
- Consider logical attendance areas, such as intermediate schools, intermediate classmates and geographical or man-made boundaries.
- Consider enrollment growth in attendance areas proportional to the capacity of secondary buildings.
- Recommend transfer policy.
Eight forums were held at schools to collect feedback from the community before the committee sat down to draw lines.
The committee used community feedback from the forums to refine its guiding principles and define the three approaches it would use to draw the boundary lines.
Ludwig divided the committee into three groups, each assigned a separate approach, by putting member’s names into a hat and drawing them at random.
Each group had seven or eight members who were told not to collaborate with the other groups. The charge was that over the next five months, they would draw the boundaries, starting with areas bordered by major roads and slowly progressing to smaller and smaller divisions.
Group A was to prioritize elementary feeder schools. It was asked to minimize the splitting of elementary feeder schools into new intermediate school areas before defining high school boundaries.
Group B was to prioritize intermediate feeder schools. It first defined the boundaries for the three main high schools, including Battle, then defined two paired intermediate schools to feed into each new high school attendance area.
Group C was not to operate under a feeder school priority. It defined three high school boundaries, then defined intermediate boundaries.
The committee met once a week on Thursday evenings. They began drawing boundaries based on their overall goals and the separate charges of each group.
Using large maps of different boundary scenarios and tables of corresponding demographic information, the group moved neighborhoods into different school boundaries, drawing the changes on a Smartboard and preparing the changes to be sent to a consulting firm, RSP and Associates.
At the end of each meeting, a group member defined the names of the different scenarios the groups came up with, then recorded a corresponding voice message with instructions for RSP.
On Fridays, Ludwig reviewed the scenarios the groups had created the night before, then sent them to RSP.
By the next Tuesday, RSP’s department in Chicago produced new maps and the corresponding enrollment data for each new scenario. Its Kansas City department produced corresponding enrollment and transition statistics.
At this point, Ludwig reviewed and prepared statistics for each approach, then emailed these to the three groups, along with the maps. He also sent the maps to a local printer, Triangle Blueprints.
On Wednesdays, he picked up the printed maps and assembled them with demographic statistics to present to the meeting on Thursdays. Then the process began again.
Ludwig said he usually spent between 20 and 30 hours a week working on this project during these months.
The committee took a break and didn’t hold meetings in August. Ludwig spent time assessing where each of the teams were with respect to the end date.
"I had to know if we could finish or not and if it was feasible to get it done within the 30 days of September," he said in an earlier interview.
The committee began meeting again and continuing its weekly schedule. At this point, members began narrowing their focus to fewer and fewer neighborhoods, moving smaller and smaller pieces with each scenario.
“We started at a very macro basis and kept getting finer and finer,” Ludwig said.
On Sept. 22, Ludwig presented a progress report to the school board, where he set the announcement date of the three boundary scenarios.
Included in this report is the observation that it would be almost impossible to balance free and reduced-price lunch percentages among the schools without sprawling attendance boundaries full of islands.
“This means the community and administration will have to accept likely higher free and reduced-lunch percentages in the buildings located in the north/northeast area of the school district,” the report stated.
After four months of drawing lines, the groups were ready to make their choices. Groups A, B and C each picked their optimal scenario.
“If we spent another two or three months, could we refine it better?” Ludwig said. “Yes, but we’re at a point where we have to go ahead.”
“There’s the fatigue factor,” he added. “We’re starting to get diminishing returns.”