The redistricting plan Whitfield County Schools approved Jan. 10 has already been altered. At Tuesday’s Board of Education work session, the board voted to postpone redistricting high school students for fall 2006.

One result of the rezoning plan for two new schools opening this fall — Beaverdale Elementary and New Hope Middle School — was a shift of an estimated 71 students previously zoned for Southeast High School to an already overcrowded Northwest High.

“My recommendation is that we delay sending Southeast students to Northwest until further study can be done,” said Daniel Vanoy, assistant superintendent of schools. “We’ll leave the elementary and middle school plan alone.”

As a result of the change, no presently enrolled Southeast students, or rising freshmen, will be shifted to Northwest High. Additionally, some students districted for North Whitfield Middle School under the new lines could later attend Southeast High.

Board vice chairman Tim Trew said he has heard concerns about Bruins athletic teams being forced to move back to the Class 5A level of competition. Northwest played at that level for two seasons, from 2002-’04, against larger schools from the north Atlanta suburbs, rather than facing many traditional Class 4A rivals closer to home.

“Letters (informing parents about the redistricting) are about to be drafted and go out,” said Superintendent Katie Brochu. “So we want to phase-in the plan to minimize difficulty.”

Vanoy said the school system previously applied for a waiver to allow Northwest to drop back to Class 4A, based on the number of students expected to attend the Career Academy after it opened last fall. A stipulation of that waiver says if Northwest grows 20 percent more than its projected enrollment, then the school is ineligible for postseason playoffs.

“As we were looking at Northwest High, a concern was expressed from part of the community that if we carried through on that part (of redistricting), it would put us over the 20 percent,” Vanoy said. “I don’t think redistricting will put them over that 20 percent maximum, but it was so close, we felt we didn’t need (to implement) that part of the redistricting plan.”

Northwest would have needed to purchase additional mobile classroom trailers under the plan, and academic groups such as debate clubs would also have been ineligible to compete on the state level if the system had violated the waiver agreement, Vanoy said.

Not only has Northwest exceeded projected enrollment numbers, but the Career Academy has lagged behind estimates and remains underpopulated. During a recent visit, Gov. Sonny Perdue praised the Academy — which offers career-oriented classes alongside traditional ones on an open campus — as a model for future schools.

Trew said he understood the Career Academy’s purpose was not only to help decrease the dropout rate but also to relieve overcrowding at Northwest.

“What did the board envision when the Career Academy opened a year ago (in the fall)? What were your plans for implementing the Career Academy?” asked Trew, one of the newest members of the board. “In the future, we need to be sure our long-range plans don’t hip-hop from here to there.”

Board member Holly Ridley said the Career Academy’s role changed over time.

“I was quoted in the paper at the time as asking, ‘Why a career academy? Why not a third high school?’ But after visiting (a similar school), I saw this as an opportunity for our community to offer an array of things we hadn’t offered before,” Ridley said. “Up until January 2005, the Career Academy wasn’t going to have full-time students. It wasn’t even built to address overcrowding at Northwest, which was already overcrowded. The problem has reached a head in the community, and now, in my mind, we’re at a crisis point. We have to address what our goals and aspirations are for Northwest.”

Board chairman Charles Oliver said it was the board’s thinking all along that the Career Academy would help with overcrowding — as a side benefit.

“Our original intent was very altruistic and pure: to provide an opportunity for students who didn’t have an opportunity and to help decrease the dropout rate,” Oliver said. “I don’t think anybody five years ago, when the Career Academy was envisioned, anticipated the overall growth we’ve seen in the last year or two.”

Oliver said he felt the Career Academy would open with 400-500 students, with half or two-thirds of those students part-timers because of the flexibility of the schedule.

“We’re right in the middle of that process now. The question is, can we as a board be patient and have enough faith in the Career Academy to put our best foot forward by marketing it like our staff is doing now?” Oliver said. “I want to reassure people; if we give this time, I think the Career Academy will have the desired effect on enrollment at Northwest.”

Ridley said Whitfield County Schools is under a five-year charter agreement to operate the Career Academy, but its success could be undermined from duplication of classes among the traditional high schools.

“That’s cutting the legs out from under this Academy. Our dropouts will never get the benefit of a career and technical education,” Ridley said, “if we don’t provide the focus as we should and do away with duplication.”

While the Career Academy does not offer athletics and some other extracurricular activities that the traditional high schools do, those who split most of their day at the Academy may attend functions such as the prom at their traditional school.

Vanoy said those students who do not want to alternate their day between two campuses and don’t wish to participate in sports and other activities, can, with their parents’ permission, help lower Northwest’s enrollment number by declaring the Career Academy as their “home school” and have their records kept there.

• In other business, Brochu told the board preliminary budget needs projected for fiscal year 2007 indicate the school will need $1.1 million above and beyond anticipated revenues. The increase comes because of overhead from the two new schools coming online and state-mandated class-size reductions and 4-percent pay raises for teachers.

Brochu said the state only compensates local systems for the minimum number of teachers required by law. Local dollars pay the salaries for any teachers above and beyond the minimum requirement.

“We want to be the best stewards of the community’s dollar,” Brochu said, “and I do believe we absolutely can stay within our current millage rate this upcoming budget season. We may have to make some transitions, but that does not mean we’re going to neglect what happens in classrooms because that’s where our dollars need to be.”

If the millage rate is not increased and property taxes remain the same, Vanoy said the system will try to make up the $1.1 million shortfall by being more efficient through attrition and by combining workloads.

• The next board meeting is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Central Office on South Thornton Avenue.

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