Those involved in the Columbia public school rezoning efforts of the late 1990s still remember the obstacles they encountered.
“It’s challenging — that would be a good word,” said Michael LeFevre, who was a member of the Enrollment Planning Commission during the redistricting that involved Blue Ridge and Paxton Keeley elementary schools. LeFevre also served during the redistricting that shifted student populations between Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools.
With plans for a new elementary school and high school under way, the district has begun to form another Enrollment Planning Commission, which will have to address similar concerns from the community. If history repeats itself, former commission members say, the new rezoning will not be easy.
“The high school redistricting was the most emotional,” LeFevre said. “There are more established patterns and perceived differences between the high schools.”
J.C. Headley, who was a new member of the Columbia School Board when rezoning began in 1998, recalled parental concerns over whether children would receive the same quality of education at either high school.
“There were concerns about the curriculum and whether it was the same at both high schools, and, in fact, it wasn’t,” said Headley, who recently stepped down from the board. “At that time, Rock Bridge didn’t have as many (Advanced Placement) courses because enrollment wasn’t as big.”
Transportation was another concern for parents. Kathy Montgomery, who had two children at Hickman and one at Oakland Junior High School, worried about the commutes if her children had been transferred to Rock Bridge.
“We live near Lake of the Woods, and they wanted to send us to Rock Bridge,” she said. “In the winter, with black ice and traffic, it becomes a dangerous situation because no matter what, you’re still trying to beat the clock.”
Nicole Kubas, a former Hickman student who has just completed her first year at Columbia College, recalls being concerned about travel if she had been moved to Rock Bridge.
“The commute would have been 25 minutes from my house, and that’s a hassle,” Kubas said. “I mean, I was late when I only had to go 10 minutes, so I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to go 25.”
Demographics were another main concern for the school district then, said Dave Raithel, who had two children in the district at the time of the rezoning. Raithel said he was told that his “integrated neighborhood” — that is, mixed racially, economically and in family structure — would complement the demographics of Rock Bridge.
“I didn’t appreciate that we should be guinea pigs for the other side of the city,” said Raithel, whose children stayed within Hickman boundaries.
As the district begins this latest rezoning process, parents and former commission members hope that others will learn from their experiences. Rebecca Woelfel, a PTA parent at Benton Elementary School, which was affected by rezoning discussions, found that parents need to look beyond their own situation and look at the district as a whole.
“Be open-minded,” Woelfel urged. “We all want to do what is best for our own children, but we have to look at all students.” She said it’s important to look out for students who “have to get over obstacles” and who might not have as much parent involvement in the process.
Former commission member Joyce Gentry-Furrer said communication is key to a successful process.
“One of the biggest things (the commission will have to do) is to include students and families,” she said. “If they were left in the dark, there would be more problems.”
Keeping the community informed was also important to parent and former commission member Sondra Flaker. “I think you have to listen to input from members of the community,” she said. “No. 1 is to listen.”
According to LeFevre, one of the biggest challenges the new committee will face is balancing its many goals.
“They (the committee) have to look for compromise,” he said. “You set out with a number of priorities. You have to look at a number of factors, including geography, demographic makeup, academic quality. You cannot meet all of those goals at the same time, and it becomes a question of compromise and priority setting.”
Several former commission members recalled frustration from parents, frustrations that were often expressed during open meetings held by the board and at the schools involved.
“If you take the anger that can come out in a public setting personally, that can make it hard,” LeFevre said. “There will be anger — count on it.”
Paul Moessner, another former commission member, offered advice to the new committee.
“Be patient, be kind, be thick-skinned,” Moessner said. “And keep your eyes on the big picture.”