ATLANTA — Parents who thought the redistricting of school enrollment zones would result in minor adjustments for area schools were in for a surprise when draft maps were revealed last week.
Community expectations at the Oct. 3 redistricting meeting were focused on adjusting enrollment imbalances in the Windward-area elementary schools in Alpharetta and filling the new Crabapple Middle School in Roswell.
What they saw were three draft maps with changes to attendance and feeder alignments affecting nearly every school in North Fulton, from elementary to high schools.
“I think there is chaos being represented [on the maps],” said Martine Zurinskas, co-president of the Alpharetta High School PTSA and a resident of the Windward community. “As a parent I am very hopeful the district will take a pause and look at the feedback.”
She noted the greatest applause of the evening came when district planners said the three draft plans could be rejected with an entirely new fourth option brought forward in the next round on Oct. 18.
Fulton School Board member Katie Reeves, who represents Alpharetta and Milton schools, said even she was caught off guard by the scope of the changes on the draft maps. She noted the board had been told the redistricting would be a “light touch” with a narrow focus, and she had relayed that to the public.
“Had I known it would be this much [movement] I would have prepared my community,” said Reeves, who noted she has been involved in more than 40 redistrictings over her 24 years in office. “I’ve never seen anything like this…and we need to recognize we are playing with people’s lives.”
A district spokesman noted the redistricting process is in its early phases, and the district is still actively soliciting and listening to the feedback from parents on the attendance zone draft plans that were released Oct. 3.
“No final decision has been made…and [a vote] on the measure will not be until December after more rounds of public meeting and comment periods,” said Brian Noyes, chief communications officer for Fulton County Schools. “Staff is using this time to discuss the needs of the district and review options with our stakeholders."
Maps were a surprise
Reeves said the changes to high school feeder patterns in the draft maps came as the biggest surprise to her and the community.
“The justification is simply not there since our high schools will not become overcrowded even if we don’t change lines,” Reeves said, noting enrollment forecasts do not support significant growth in the near future.
Additionally, when the maps were presented to the public the data behind the decisions was not made available. This is in contrast to past redistrictings, Reeves said, when drafts and data were released together.
The data was made available on the district website in the days following the Oct. 3 meeting.
Noyes said community members should always be aware that redistricting is a complex process, and direction can evolve over time.
“We started last spring [looking into redistricting] and as we’ve been gathering more information, we been adjusting the scope of the process appropriately,” Noyes said.
Zurinskas said she believes district planners may have “overreached” on the current maps, and estimates the district is now sifting through thousands of comments. She remains confident they will bring back maps to the third round which makes better sense and reflects the community’s wishes.
She noted geographic proximity is the top criteria for attendance zones, yet in the draft maps several neighborhoods sharing a boundary or in very close proximity to a school are being zoned to schools miles away.
“On the website it says Fulton’s redistricting is to address capacity at targeted and overcrowded schools,” Zurinskas said. “But there is so much more on the [draft] maps…and it just doesn’t make sense.”
Politics at play
Former Alpharetta city councilman Ben Burnett, who was a driving force in bringing Auburn University classes to the school district, said something more sinister is in play with the redistricting.
He fired off a letter to Fulton Schools Superintendent Mike Looney following the Oct. 3 redistricting meeting saying the widespread disruptions to schools would “dissolve the community of Alpharetta, Milton and Roswell.”
He said it is the quality of the schools that have drawn people to the region, and not the developments and downtowns.
“The schools here are the golden goose of this community,” Burnett wrote.
He also asserted the redistricting disruptions seemed focused on board member Katie Reeves whose outspoken manner has often left her at odds with her fellow board members and staff on occasion. Burnett noted most of the questionable decisions on redistricting were found at schools in Reeves' District 2 region. Reeves is retiring in December after six terms on the Fulton School Board.
“I see through the politics of this,” wrote Burnett, adding that Reeves was not aware of the zone changes until the Oct. 3 meeting. “That means, a group of bureaucrats didn't want an elected official to know what was going on.”
Fulton Schools spokesman Noyes called Burnett’s claims “preposterous.”
“There is nothing personal in the maps and it’s all about the numbers,” Noyes said. “Obviously people have their personal opinions but we [create the maps] without political consideration.”