New Superintendent Donald Aguillard’s to-do list is starting to grow as board members asked him Wednesday night to consider drawing up new lines for existing school zones to level off student populations across the district.
“There are a number of schools that have empty classrooms, and there are a number of classrooms busting at the seams,” said board member Tehmi Chassion during Wednesday’s board meeting.
Aguillard officially starts work May 18, though he attended Wednesday’s board meeting and has been in talks with staff this week while wrapping up business as superintendent in neighboring St. Mary Parish.
School Board member Erick Knezek asked staff to present new zoning maps by the summer to give families a year’s advance notice of any changes.
While Aguillard supported the board’s interest in changing school zones, he said he’d like time to get his work as superintendent underway and start delving into the rezoning issue in two or three months.
The topic of rezoning seems to “illicit horror and death for some reason,” Chassion joked during the meeting, and he began using the term “zone modification” rather than rezoning.
Chassion said he visited one of his constituents who lives down the street from Paul Breaux Middle. The school could be seen from her driveway, yet her son attends Edgar Martin Middle School, which is about 7 miles away.
Chassion said a zone modification to push lines a neighborhood or a few streets over could make a major difference in balancing school enrollments.
Knezek and board member Justin Centanni also spoke in support of an evaluation of school zones. The two met earlier this week with local media to outline the need and to share census data.
Centanni shared the data at the board meeting Wednesday. The board was discussing the creation of a French immersion campus at one neighborhood school — Myrtle Place Elementary — because of the changing demographics in that neighborhood. Fewer non-immersion students are enrolling in the school. Centanni said data show that is caused by the aging population and the reduction of elementary school-age children in the area.
The data also showed a spurt of school-age children in the Youngsville area and younger adults moving to south Lafayette.
“A lot of (families) are moving there because of the schools and facilities,” said board member Jeremy Hidalgo, whose district includes the Youngsville area. “I hope that we can vet it property and thoroughly.”
The school system redrew its zones and created a schools of choice program more than 10 years ago to achieve unitary status from its decadeslong desegregation lawsuit. The school system received conditional approval in 2004 and achieved unitary status in 2006 — meaning the courts no longer have say over local decisions related to how the district draws its zones, former board member Mike Hefner told the board Wednesday.
Hefner served on the School Board for more than 20 years and opted not to seek re-election in 2010. He’s also a demographer who works with other school systems and local governments.
Hefner encouraged the board to consider adjustments to programs at schools now as it works out rezoning issues. While parents may get upset if a schools of choice program moves, if they like the program, they’ll follow it, he said.
Shifting students around to ensure facilities are properly used will pay off in other ways, too, Hefner said.
“It’s really hard for the taxpayers to hear talk about more taxes to build facilities when you have seats that are not being occupied,” Hefner said.
Centanni also views the zoning adjustment as a fiscal decision that presents a structural flaw in the board’s budget because some schools have 13 students in a classroom, while some schools have empty classrooms.
He also proposed a group of parents or community members to explore the issue because “without significant input, we won’t accomplish a lot.”
Knezek said the school system should consider allowing students affected by a zone change the option to remain at their school if they’re in their final two years at the school, though transportation would be restricted for those students to designated bus stops.
“I’d like to reiterate that we all want lower class sizes and to eliminate temporary buildings in our district ... yet, we’re still using zoning lines drawn in response to desegregation 13 years ago,” Knezek said. “Rezoning is imminent. Let’s find a way to make it happen as effectively as possible and minimize the impact.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.