With vote Tuesday, Salem-Keizer School Board likely to shuffle students to new schools

Months of work to outline new attendance boundaries for Salem area schools is expected to to an end Tuesday night as the Salem-Keizer School Board considers approving a plan that will touch thousands of students.

Board members Kathy Goss, Sheronne Blasi, Marty Heyen, Jim Green, Chuck Lee, Jesse Lippold and Paul Kyllo will vote on the proposal at a 6 p.m. meeting at the district’s student support center, 2575 Commercial St. S.E. Citizens can each speak for up to three minutes about the proposal.

The plan is meant to reduce overcrowding at McKay High School, which would otherwise have nearly 2,800 students by 2022. With changes, that would shrink to about 2,200, according to district projections.

To accomplish that, students at some elementary and middle schools that now feed into McKay would instead attend North or South high school.

Separate from the boundary adjustments, the district will spend about $50 million at McKay to add classroom space and renovate the gyms and common areas, district spokeswoman Lillian Govus said.

To minimize disruption for families, elementary school boundary changes would only apply to students going into kindergarten through third grade next fall.

Sixth and ninth graders affected by the changes would attend new schools in the fall. But older students would remain at the same schools and continue receiving transportation to them, Govus said.

Families who don’t want to change schools can apply to keep their children in place. Those would be approved on a case-by-case basis as space allows, Govus said. Students getting those transfers are not eligible for district transportation.

The district staff also is now recommending construction projects at two elementary schools, proposals that emerged from the boundary task force.

Miller Elementary, which is already overcrowded, would receive about $8 million for new classrooms to avoid sending some of its students to another school, district chief operations officer Mike Wolfe told the school board in January.

Kennedy Elementary will receive about $3.5 million to replace aging portables, Wolfe said.

Under the plan the board is considering Tuesday night, boundaries would be largely untouched for the district’s whitest and most affluent high schools, Sprague and West.

That has fueled concerns about segregation from some parents and community members who spoke at a January board meeting.

The Salem-Keizer NAACP joined those voices with a statement Sunday urging members to attend the school board meeting and ask for more time to consider the impacts on the district’s black students.

Adriana Miranda and Adam Kohler, volunteers who co-chaired the district’s boundary adjustment task force, said whether to bus students across town to Sprague was the dominant point of discussion in their meetings.

Earlier drafts of the plan would have moved students from largely Latino elementary and middle schools in eastern Salem to Sprague, but those plans were scrapped after parents raised concerns about sending their children to Sprague.

“Some families didn’t even know where Sprague was,” Miranda told the school board in January. “If we’re really talking about equity, why would we put a burden on low-income families to wake their kids up earlier than normal to bus them across town?”

Instead, the plan would send roughly 1,000 students now attending Four Corners and Eyre elementary schools – two predominantly Latino schools in east Salem – to South, which is about 60 percent white.

Even that more modest change drew some concerns from parents at Four Corners, who said they hoped the district would ensure their children wouldn’t face racism and bullying at South.

Annalivia Palazzo-Angulo, executive director of the Salem-Keizer Coalition for Equality, said she’d like to see the district address desegregation through voluntary measures, not forced bussing.

“We cannot put the burden and harm of desegregation on our students,” Palazzo-Angulo said. She said a better approach would be a system where parents who want to send their kids to Sprague or West can do so and receive free transportation.

“There are families that want to do it. They just don’t have the transportation,” she said.

Kyllo and Heyen proposed allowing for voluntary transfers, but Kyllo said district officials told him that would be too expensive.

Transportation changes required by the proposed boundaries are already going to cost the district $2.5 million, Govus said.

The debate reflects disagreement over the role a district that prides itself on neighborhood schools should have in addressing segregation.

Community surveys by the district in August and September 2018 found that parents and guardians considered maintaining neighborhood schools as the second most important attribute for their child’s school, higher than state-of-the-art facilities.

In a city where neighborhoods vary broadly in racial and socioeconomic diversity, schools tend to reflect the segregation of their neighborhoods. Supporters of the new boundaries say a serious conversation about segregation in Salem needs to consider housing affordability and city planning.

“Our city needs to have some tough conversations with our elected officials about systematic barriers for people of color. We need to look at zoning for affordable housing. We need to look at public transportation,” Cynthia Richardson, the district’s director of student equity, access and advancement, said in an email.

Richardson, who previously served as principal at both North and McKay, said the committee worked hard to ensure those schools would have their needs met.

Heyen, who represents the area of Salem that includes McKay, said she’s received many comments urging her to vote against the plan.

“We’re a diverse country. We should have diverse schools,” she said. But she agreed with Palazzo-Angulo that forcing families to bus students across the city was not “in the best interests of the kids.”

Heyen said she wants to encourage the district to continue looking for ways to improve programs for students at McKay so they receive a quality education.

“Equity isn’t about an address. It’s about an opportunity,” she said.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: (503) 575-1241 or [email protected]

WILL YOU SUBSCRIBE? If you haven’t signed up for a digital subscription to Salem Reporter, please do so to support this kind of local news reporting, brought to you by a team of professional reporters. For $10 a month, you hire that team to work for you all month digging out the news of Salem. Sign up HERE.