A citywide redistricting plan that aims to move 183 students to different schools provoked opposition and outrage from parents, who crowded into the Memorial Middle School cafeteria Monday night for a South Portland School Board meeting.

Voicing concerns about disruption to their children’s lives and a lack of information on the plan, parent after parent lashed out at Superintendent Suzanne Godin and other top school officials in a public hearing that went on for hours.

“To say my family is disappointed by the process and lack of communication is an understatement,” said Jill Frame, whose daughter may have to leave Brown Elementary School for Small Elementary School.

“We were not given the courtesy of a phone call or a letter to inform us that we might be impacted by this plan,” she said. “We were even told that principals were discouraged from contacting families until this thing settles down.”

At issue is a redistricting plan that the South Portland School Department released Feb. 28 and is scheduled for a vote by the School Board on March 10.

The plan seeks to balance enrollment at the five elementary schools and two middle schools by targeting neighborhoods throughout the city, such as residential areas off Highland Avenue and Mitchell Road.

The redistricting plan was introduced at a school board meeting last week and posted on the School Department’s Web site.

Complicating the process for parents was the decision by Godin to formally include the redistricting plan in the school department’s $42.7 million budget package for 2008-2009. The redistricting plan’s components are being discussed as part of the annual budget review process. About 100 parents who turned out to talk about the redistricting plan Monday night first had to wait two hours for the board to finish its budget discussions.

The school department handed out informational papers that provided more details on the redistricting plan. Of the 183 students who would be moved to different districts, 170 are in elementary school.

Godin told the parents the primary reason for redistricting is to even out student populations at the city’s five elementary schools. While some schools face overcrowding, others are not operating at capacity, she said.

For example, Skillin Elementary School’s projected enrollment for next school year is 432 students, Godin said, adding that the school cannot accommodate everyone.

“There is not enough room,” she said.

She said Dyer Elementary School also is operating at close to capacity, because of new residential growth on outer Highland Avenue.

By contrast, Kaler Elementary School – at 212 students – is not full and can handle more students. The plan proposes to move 36 students who primarily live in new subdivisions off outer Highland Avenue from Dyer to Kaler school.

“By moving growth around, we’re trying to get a better balance of students at our elementary schools,” said Godin, who acknowledged to the parents that she developed the redistricting plan.

Bill Barthelman of Whispering Pines Drive, off Highland Avenue, brought in a set of maps he had developed based on the redistricting plan. He complained that the plan seemed to arbitrarily break up neighborhoods and lacked cohesion.

Under the plan, students from a list of identified neighborhoods would be assigned new schools starting in September 2008. The school department’s list identifies neighborhoods off Anthoine Street, Stillman Street, Highland Avenue, Brickhill and Mitchell Road as impacted.

Prior to the meeting, Godin said in an interview that most of the children affected by redistricting would not have to travel far to their new school. She said that no additional costs are anticipated to bus students.

School officials also seek to send students, who are originally from other countries and just now learning to speak English, to their neighborhood schools, she said. Currently, most of the 43 students classified as “English Language Learners” are bused to Brown School.

Several parents asked the School Board to slow down the redistricting process and to remove the plan from the budget proceedings.

Kelly Zwicker Brown, who lives on Crestview Lane, complained that her family “was not notified in a timely and accurate manner. This plan needs to come out of the budgeting process. It doesn’t need to be part of it.”

“I urge you to table the redistricting plan and give us time to digest the information,” added Peter Stocks, who lives off Highland Avenue.

Stocks complained that the schedule of meetings on the redistricting plan was misleading because it was publicized by the school department as budget hearings.

“We have only been getting information piecemeal, and we are the stakeholders,” he said.

Parents want school officials to remove the redistricting plan from the budget reviews to allow for slower deliberations.

The South Portland School Department has to follow a tight schedule to present its $42.7 million budget for adoption to the School Board, City Council and then to voters in a citywide vote.

Although the redistricting plan is technically part of the school department’s proposed spending package, it does not require voter approval to be implemented, Godin said.

It only needs the endorsement of the School Board.

“If the board approves the redistricting plan, it will go through regardless of whether the budget is adopted,” said Godin prior to Monday’s meeting.

The school department estimates that it would save $304,000 through redistricting, which would ease the need to hire more teachers at Dyer and Brown schools.

Stanley Cox voiced concerns that many other parents shared in the meeting. Cox said he was worried about how often the school department has redrawn its districts in the past – and what is in store for the future.

Cox said his grandson will have gone to four different schools before he reaches high school, if the latest redistricting plan is adopted.

“He started at Skillin and then was moved to Kaler. But he was promised he could go to middle school at Memorial,” Cox said. “Now he’s at Memorial but on the list to be moved to Mahoney.

“This is excessive and not a good lesson on the integrity of the school system,” Cox said. “Don’t make promises that you cannot keep,” Cox said, looking at school board members.

“It just doesn’t seem fair to pick on the same kids time and again for redistricting.”

Click here to visit the South Portland School Department’s Web site with a redistricting map and a copy of the proposed redistricting plan.

.Janet Steady, of South Portland, speaks to the South Portland School Board Monday evening.Shifting seats – Parents lash out against South Portland school redistricting plan

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