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Transportation moves to forefront of final realignment forum

Thursday, November 17, 2011 | 11:04 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — Community members who attended the last of Columbia Public School's eight public forums on reorganizing school boundaries focused the majority of their discussion on distance and transportation.

Discussion at the seven previous forums had addressed various boundary realignment issues, such as balancing enrollment and demographics throughout the district, the school board’s upcoming decision about a new transfer policy and making sure transportation times and distances are reasonable.

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More than 70 community members and parents attended the final forum Thursday night at Gentry Middle School.

Gentry will become an intermediate school when Battle High School opens in August 2013. Based on the new boundary maps, students attending Gentry will go to Rock Bridge High School regardless of the boundary scenario selected by the board in February.

In all three scenarios created by the secondary enrollment planning committee, Rock Bridge will have the second-highest enrollment numbers when Battle opens, leaving room for more than 200 students before the building reaches capacity.

Don Ludwig, committee chairman, said part of the reason for the high enrollment was that the data used projected growth in the southwest area of Columbia in coming years.

Many students living in the area will still attend Gentry, but depending on the approach chosen, some could attend Jefferson Junior High.

Ludwig said the district has received more than 900 individual comments about the reorganization so far. The committee fielded about 20 more comments at the final public forum. They focused on how far students live from their potential schools, travel time and transportation.

Ludwig began the discussion portion of the forum by saying that after last spring's forums, many parents were OK with middle school populations splitting up among the high schools. He said parents were confident their children would be able to make new friends once they moved on to intermediate schools.

Monique Lorson, a parent of two children in the district, said she didn't like scenarios A and B for intermediate schools because her son, who lives 1.5 miles from Gentry, would have to be bused to Jefferson. 

"He could be at home with his family eating breakfast in the morning, but instead he'll be being bused to Jefferson," Lorson said. "That seems like a lot to ask."

Richelle Koopman, parent of two children in the district, has similar concerns. She said when her children get a little older, one could attend Jefferson and the other could attend Rock Bridge. 

"There's a lot of distance between those schools, and that will be tough with their extracurricular activities," Koopman said. "I don't want to have to limit them."

Another parent, Melinda Jenne, was troubled about a boundary line cutting her street in half in intermediate scenario C. After explaining her concerns to the committee, Jenne received an answer she said was much to her liking.

Ludwig told her that he had actually already looked at that street and said that the committee would be fixing that particular boundary. Darin Preis, committee co-chair and facilitator of the forums, said Ludwig's promise to fix a section of the map was unprecedented. 

"There are a bunch of those little anomalies on the maps," Ludwig said. "When we go back to look at these maps again, we will be addressing them." 

The individual concerns of certain forum attendees were a big focus of the meeting, but a couple community members thought distance and transportation were secondary to other issues.

Myra Feguson, who has a son at Gentry, said that she understands that the different approaches present many different situations for all families, but suggested that some people would be willing to help out with transportation concerns.

"I know there are many people with unusual cases and preferences, but maybe some parents would be willing to drive their kids and try and save the district some money," Ferguson said. 

Monica Widhaln, whose situation won't change regardless of the maps chosen, said that keeping Gentry from becoming overcrowded was her biggest concern.

"I don’t want to see Gentry be overcrowded because (the committee will have to make) a tough decision," she said. "I have a lot of friends in here that probably wouldn't be happy with me for saying that, but I don’t want the committee making a decision just to make people happy that would end up creating a bottleneck at Gentry."

This was the last of the district's public forums for discussing the reorganization of school boundaries. The next step in the process for the committee will be to look at the comments it received, which it hopes to do at its Dec. 1 meeting.


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