School zones: Divisive issue

School zones: Divisive issue

March 1st, 2012 in Opinion Times

Rick Smith, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, and other education department officials expected a sizable and vocal audience at a Tuesday night meeting to reveal rezoning plans for the fast-growing eastern part of the county. The level of ire expressed by some in the crowd at East Hamilton Middle/High School, though, might have surprised them. It shouldn't have. Whenever the interests of parents concerned about their children's education and related issues conflict with changes in attendance zones, sparks are sure to fly.

That proved the case Tuesday. After Smith and officials revealed rezoning plans designed to relieve overcrowding at East Hamilton and nearby elementary schools, he opened the floor to the comments. More than two hours later, Smith was still fielding questions. His answers didn't always sit well with many in the audience. Voices were raised before the meeting ended, and many attendees were visibly angry as they the left the building.

That anger is misdirected. School officials must relieve overcrowding at East Hamilton. There is no alternative, especially since nearby schools like Ooltewah High and Ooltewah Middle operate below capacity. East Hamilton has a current population of about 2,000 students, well above its planned capacity of 1,650. Redrawing attendance zones is a logical and equitable way to reduce overcrowding that will overwhelm infrastructure and instructional programs at East Hamilton and other sites if not corrected.

Those most directly -- they would say adversely -- affected by the changes in zoning don't see it that way. They view the new plan as a broken promise from the county school system. Many say they bought a home because it was zoned for East Hamilton. Others say the new zones will create transportation difficulties and upset children who will be forced to leave long-standing friends when they change schools. Those are legitimate concerns.

The truth, though, is that school zones are fluid. From time to time, they shift to match population growth and decline. For the eastern part of the county, that time has arrived. The neighborhoods served by East Hamilton, Ooltewah and feeder schools are an example of that. Rapid growth in the area has prompted the need to rebalance school populations.

That change won't come without pain. There's simply not room for everyone to attend the school of his or her choice. In the current case, there are viable alternatives at comparable and nearby schools. The proposed attendance zones would send students to them.

Smith understands the emotions involved in such changes, and certainly would prefer to avoid conflict if he could. His goal, though, is the correct one. County residents rightly require the school system to provide the best education for the most kids in available facilities within the present budget. The zoning plan presented Tuesday is an effort to do so.

The plan should not be cut in stone. Time should be allowed for additional discussion between school officials and parents, and for making changes that address inequities -- some raised Tuesday -- in the plan. Smith and other officials still have to make a convincing case that their plan is the best available to relieve the present overcrowding and to address continued growth that will affect schools in that part of Hamilton County.

The next opportunity for them to do so is tonight at 6 at Ooltewah High School at another public meeting convened to explain school zoning changes. It's an invitation and an opportunity that those with children in the affected schools and others with an interest in public education here should quickly accept.