Scott Leopold’s goal in setting new public school attendance zones for Columbia is to make the process clear for the people who care most.
“Not everyone will agree on the placement, but hopefully they’ll understand the process and know how we got there,” Leopold said.
The districtwide rezoning will accommodate a seventh middle school opening in 2020 in southern Columbia. For the first time, an outside consultant will be the only one making formal recommendations for attendance zones for the district’s elementary, middle and high schools. In the past, if a consultant was used, it was in collaboration with a committee of volunteers.
The district will still have focus groups, an online survey and at least one open house to help gather community feedback.
Leopold is a partner of Cooperative Strategies, a financial and demographic planning company in Ohio. The firm is contracted to handle the project for $69,750, according to district documents.
Leopold will present a timeline for his process to the Columbia School Board on Monday and enrollment projections Nov. 12. He plans to have boundary options ready by Dec. 20. The meeting is at 6:30 p.m. in the Aslin Administration Building, 1818 W. Worley St.
He has worked for Cooperative Strategies since November 2016 and, before that, for Dejong-Richter, an educational GIS (Geographic Information System) services company since 2005, before it merged with Cooperative Strategies. He specializes in analyzing geographic data.
During a recent interview, Leopold was waiting on past enrollment data so he could begin making projections for how many students will attend each school. The enrollment projections take into account Columbia’s growing community and predict enrollment over the next 10 years.
He said with the projections, he creates “planning units,” or groups of neighborhoods to be assigned to each school. He will base the assignment of each unit on seven guiding principles the Columbia School Board gave him, which include:
- Reflecting the district’s composition.
- Anticipating future growth of neighborhoods.
- Considering how long students spend on buses.
- Creating community through the power of a school attendance area.
After Leopold presents the options, they will be available to view online with a survey attached. Focus groups of parents and people without children in the district will review the options and provide feedback.
On Jan. 7, an open house will be held to talk with Leopold about the options.
“The options won’t be voted on by the whole community, but they can give us feedback on what they like and don’t like,” he said. “It’s intended as a community process,” he said.
Leopold said he will make a revised recommendation to the board Feb. 4 based on the feedback. The board will make the final call.
“We want the boundaries finalized by April to give the community an entire school year to prepare for the adjustment,” district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.
Leopold redrew district boundaries in 2017 for Vestavia Hills City Schools in Alabama to accommodate the purchase of two schools. He presented three boundary options to the Vestavia School Board. Assistant Superintendent Patrick Martin said Leopold was forthright and told the board how to manage the expectations of stakeholders.
“He let us know up front there is not one perfect solution when rezoning,” Martin said.
Leopold also worked for the Olentangy Local School District, the fastest growing district in Ohio, according to communications director Christa Davis. Davis said he helped reassign attendance areas and came up with enrollment projections for the growing community.
“Scott was able to make the boundary placement understandable for community members and could navigate the discussion with no problems, despite the emotion that comes with redistricting,” Davis said.
Leopold has also worked for school districts in Texas, Virginia and Colorado on projects similar to the one in Columbia.
Baumstark thinks hiring Leopold will be more effective than what the district has done before: forming a committee of volunteers and administrators to work with an outside consultant. During the most recent rezoning, involving Gentry and Jefferson middle schools, there was a lot of pressure on committee members to deliver a plan that pleased the community, Baumstark said.
The process is difficult to manage because the district is so large, she said, and it would be “a challenge to have an unqualified internal committee take on the project.”
“If we have an unbiased consultant drawing the boundaries, the committee won’t be pressured by neighbors and might ease tension between administrators and the public,” she said.
Leopold said he’s worked with many districts in different states and there haven’t been problems because he’s not a local.
“The only challenges come from miscommunication,” he said.
He said he will minimize confusion by making his process clear. But both he and Baumstark emphasized that regardless of how transparent the process is, not everyone will be happy with the new boundaries.
“Redistricting is an emotional topic,” Baumstark said. “Our goal is to have everyone informed early.”
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