The Grade Blog

Wednesday, May 15 2013 06:04 PM

Panama struggles with remaining options for relieving overcrowding

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    By Courtenay Edelhart / The Californian

    Berkshire Elementary School is Panama-Buena Vista Union School District's most overcrowded school with more than 1,000 students. Some other elementary schools in the district have half as many. The district has revised attendance boundaries in order to even out the distribution of students.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

The Panama-Buena Vista Union School District is scrambling to figure out how it's going to deal with overcrowding at some schools now that the school board has backed away from a proposal to redraw school attendance boundaries.

An unintended consequence of the board's failure to approve the proposal Tuesday is that money that previously was to be used to build new schools may have to be diverted to erecting portable buildings on overcrowded campuses, said Glenn Imke, assistant superintendent of business services.

The southwest Bakersfield district has $18.4 million in bond money from Measure P, which voters approved in November, but that money is restricted to the repair and modernization of the district's 23 existing schools. It cannot be used to purchase or move portable buildings.

Money for expenses related to growth, such as portables and new construction, comes from the Capital Facilities Fund. That's raised from fees paid by real estate developers and at the moment contains about $11.7 million. That is supposed to be used to build a new elementary school already in the works for the area around McKee Road and Lima Street.

It's also needed for as many as three schools the district anticipates it will need in the West Ming Specific Plan, a 2,182-acre area west of Buena Vista Road where 200 new homes are supposed to go up by the end of next year.

The district has to buy at least 14 acres for each new school it builds.

It costs about $150,000 to buy a new portable and $50,000 to relocate an existing one.

"Where's this money supposed to come from?" Imke said.

It will take longer to build needed schools if the district has to tap money intended for buying land and construction costs, and those temporary buildings are only a short-term solution because growth is ongoing, Imke said.

He was crunching numbers Wednesday to try to estimate how many portables the district might need.

Panama-Buena Vista currently has about 400 portables on 23 campuses. Sing Lum Elementary School has the most, with 37.

Some campuses don't have room for any more buildings, so if enrollment at those schools exceeds capacity, some students will have to be "overflowed," or bused to low-enrollment schools outside their neighborhood until space opens up near home.

Overflowing students isn't a good solution because it divides families and neighborhoods and contributes to instability, said Gerrie Kincaid, assistant superintendent of educational services.

"We try to keep siblings together as much as possible, but sometimes there will be space in one grade level but not at another grade level," she said.

The boundary modification plan drew criticism from some parents who said it had been rushed into with inadequate time for public review and input.

In November, the district hired a consultant to study growth trends in southwest Bakersfield. Based on that analysis, the consultant came up with a draft map that was presented to a committee of parents, principals, administrators and labor union representatives.

The committee met on three Thursdays in April and offered feedback that was used to make modifications. The map that came from the committee's consensus was then revealed to the public at two town hall-style meetings earlier this month.

Board members at a jam-packed meeting Tuesday were told often that parents didn't have enough time to evaluate the proposal, and board members ultimately put off the vote to an unspecified date.

"None of us knew about this," said Reagan Elementary School father Michael Branom. "How are we supposed to trust in this process if it's so secretive?"

Kincaid said the district has done boundary modifications in the spring before, but in those cases it was due to the opening of a new school and confined to a more narrow area. Because this one affected the whole district, it may have caused more apprehension, she said.

District administrators had asked the board to consider new boundaries at most of its schools because of growth. Panama-Buena Vista has grown 16 percent over the last eight years from 15,032 students in 2005 to 17,473 as of May 1.

The proposed boundaries were designed to even out the distribution of students in a district where some schools are overcrowded and others are underused.

Under the plan, junior high school lines would have been unchanged, but 14 of the district's 18 elementary schools would have had new boundaries starting in 2013-14. The only elementary school boundaries that weren't changing were for Castle, Loudon, Sandrini and Van Horn.

The plan would have affected about 1,400 students, or roughly 8 percent of the district.

Imke said there probably isn't time to approve the current plan or a new boundary proposal at a subsequent meeting because the process of assigning teachers begins this week. Under a labor agreement, teachers are supposed to know where they're going to be teaching next year before the start of summer break.

The 2012-13 school year concludes at the end of the month.

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