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School boundary changes cause confusion

The recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg School board votes to ease overcrowding at several schools mean thousands of kids will be going to different schools next year. WFAE is taking a closer look at the factors that went into these decisions, which brought out a lot of rancor, confusion and calls for a better process. To ease overcrowding at Eastover Elementary, Dilworth Elementary will become a neighborhood school. It will draw kids from three different schools. The plan shuffles more than 1,100 students, to relieve Eastover of more than 100. In this story, Simone Orendain looks at what it means when a school has more students than its supposed to: Selwyn Elementary's part in the student shuffle came late in the game. As community meetings on Eastover's overcrowding progressed, CMS planners say they received suggestions from the public to draw a handful of Selwyn's students into the new Dilworth zone. Selwyn Parent Jef Fowler and others mobilized to oppose the plan. But in the end, the school board approved it. So now, Fowler's three children are in the new attendance zone. "Dilworth Elementary will be a great school. The parents will make it a great school. But the thing I was worried about was the process that involved Selwyn," he says. Fowler says what started out as a search for a solution to the overcrowding issue at Eastover arbitrarily morphed into a solution to relieve Selwyn of classrooms that aren't meeting so-called baseline standards. Fowler is standing across the street from Selwyn, which CMS wouldn't allow WFAE to visit for this story. "Classroom size is about 21.4 in terms of the number of kids, the hallways are not crowded," he says. "The performance is very high. There's nothing in there that would make you worried that there's any kind of overcrowding or a systemic negative coming from a school that has any overcrowding issues." The district never said Selwyn was overcrowded. But CMS student planning executive director Scott McCully says it has a core capacity issue that is partially addressed by the redrawing. He says, "The school itself has 26 classrooms. It has a brand new media center, cafeteria, everything else associated with a new school. However, it has more students than can fit in those 26 classrooms." Those 26 classrooms are in the new part of the school, which has been around for six years. CMS only considers the new part of the school to be core space. "We don't count those additional classrooms in the old building as part of the total school because they don't meet our baseline standard," says McCully. Instead the 12 classrooms in the old building are counted the same as mobile classrooms- extra swing space. McCully says those 12 classrooms don't meet the district's standards. Classrooms that don't meet the baseline standard usually cost more to run and can fall short in areas like energy efficiency. In the case of the old Selwyn building, C-M-S Planning and Facilities specialist Dennis LaCaria explains, "We've got single-pained glass in those windows. We've got roofing issues, we've got HVAC issues. It's not that it's unsafe or doesn't necessarily meet code. It's expensive to operate. The systems are failing. We've got water intrusion in some of the classrooms. Those things have to be addressed." The new Selwyn building only has 26 classrooms because planners projected low growth for the school in the 03-04 school year. By the number of classrooms alone, it doesn't meet today's baseline standard that calls for at least 39 classrooms at elementary schools. Right now, 65 percent of CMS schools meet the baseline standard. Moving the 69 students to the new Dilworth zone, will mean some of those old Selwyn classrooms won't be used, while some will be used. McCully says ultimately a full-scale remodeling project at the school will solve the capacity issue. But that all depends on how high up Selwyn will be on the new capital project list. During the debate over putting Selwyn in the mix, some parents called the district's reasoning smoke and mirrors. Parent Jef Fowler says the roundabout way the district took to form a new neighborhood school could have been avoided altogether. "I think at the very front end of the process if people said 'We're creating a neighborhood school to solve the overcrowding issue at Eastover and moving some kids around and your neighborhood's being rezoned.' That would have been a totally different conversation," he says. Fowler and other parents are now busy forming a support system for their new school. They say they hope the district will have a better process in place by the time another boundary issue comes up.