In a move affecting thousands, Salem-Keizer schools crafting new boundaries

Mike Wolfe, chief operations officer for Salem-Keizer Public Schools, explains how boundary review will address overcrowding at McKay High School during a meeting on Sept. 20, 2018. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

It’s no secret that Salem-Keizer schools are educating far more students than they were originally built to hold.

Addressing crowding and preparing for growing enrollment was by far the largest piece of the Salem-Keizer School District’s recent bond measure, which will add 170 new classrooms across 29 schools over the next five years, at a cost of $442 million.

But as the district begins to design those expansions, staff are starting a process that will impact many local families much sooner: boundary review.

That review, which will last until February, determines which elementary and middle schools should feed into which of the district’s six high schools. It will also look at the lines separating students who attend, say, South Salem High School from Sprague.

District officials know these lines have significant impacts on students and their families, which is why the process is spread over months.

“People buy property based on the schools their kids will go to,” said Mike Wolfe, the district’s chief operating officer, who’s leading the review.

Here’s an overview of what to expect.

How does boundary review work?

First, the district comes up with a rough plan for redrawing boundary lines and redistributing schools to feed into high schools.

Actual line changes are drawn by hand in a computer program which can calculate the number of students being shifted.

The goal, Wolfe said, is to end up with no elementary school with more than 725 students, no middle school over 1,250 and no high school over 2,250.

That process is based on projected population growth estimates – the same type of data used to draft the bond measure but even more detailed. It includes block-by-block analysis of things like applications for new residential construction, Wolfe said.

“We know exactly where the kids are today and where they’ll be in 10 years,” he said.

The district hired a consulting firm, Flo Analytics, to update those enrollment projections and create the first run at new boundaries.

That plan will be reviewed and modified by a boundary task force, which begins meeting this week. After considering citizen comments and presenting the plan to the public, they’ll forward a final proposal to the school board for consideration.

The task force includes nearly 50 people, including representatives from every high school, community groups, parents, teachers and students.

The co-chairs are Adriana Miranda, a South Salem feeder system parent, and Adam Kohler, operations manager for CenturyLink in Salem.

How does public comment factor in to changes?

There are no set rules for what factors the task force will consider when changing the initial boundary plan, said Karma Krause, who does community outreach on the bond project and related issues for the district.

In the past, they’ve considered “things specific to neighborhoods that a resident would know best, like where it wouldn’t make sense to draw a line because of a physical barrier,” Krause said in an email. Other factors include issues like traffic patterns, neighborhood connections to a particular school or changes that might create difficulties with transportation.

What’s the timeline?

The boundary review committee has its first meeting this week to go over the process and divide into working groups that will focus on individual high schools.

The proposed boundary changes will be finished the first week of October, Wolfe said, and the committee will review them and discuss possible changes.

From now until December, the committee will meet regularly and hold several public meetings to get citizen comment on the proposal. The process is often emotional, Wolfe said, since few things are as important to parents as where their kids go to school.

“Assumptions get challenged, questions get asked,” Wolfe said. “There are things we know we don’t know.”

In January, the revised boundaries will be sent to the school board for review with a decision expected in February, Wolfe said.

Which high school systems will change?

While every school may have its boundaries adjusted slightly, there will be no major changes to the middle and elementary schools feeding into West Salem and McNary high schools, Wolfe said.

With additional space added during bond construction, McNary will be large enough to accommodate its projected enrollment of 2,200 students. West could take additional students from schools that currently feed into other high schools, Wolfe said, but the logistics of transporting students to West Salem for class means that’s likely not the most efficient option.

The district’s four high schools serving the core of Salem will likely see some changes.

McKay has too many schools feeding into it, Wolfe said. Most district high schools draw from six or seven elementary schools, while McKay has nine and a half.

With projected population growth, McKay would be home to more than 2,700 students by 2020 if no actions is taken, according to the district’s long-range facilities plan. With the portables the school currently has, it’s built to hold 2,250 students. And 16 portable classrooms are nearing the end of their life.

Those changes could be made by “splitting” a middle school – meaning half the students are sent to one high school and half to another – or reassigning a school entirely.

How can I stay up to date?

It’s too late to apply to be on the boundary committee, but you can still participate and stay involved.

Keep reading the Salem Reporter – we’ll be watching the process and updating you as it moves along.

The committee will take public testimony at open house meetings on Oct. 30 and Nov. 13, and present its final plan to the superintendent and school board on Dec. 11.

The district has a page dedicated to the process with updates. Krause is also collecting public comments at [email protected] or (503) 399-3038.

This story has been updated to correct the name of the boundary review task force co-chairs.

Got a tip? Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.