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J.W. Smith Elementary attendance area to change

Faced with making a tough decision Monday, Bemidji School District's Board of Education unanimously voted to expand J.W. Smith Elementary School's attendance area to keep Solway Elementary School from becoming too overcrowded.

J.W. Smith's attendance area will be expanded farther west to include neighborhoods west of the airport.

The change will affect residents in the area between Cardinal Road Northwest and Eckles Road Northwest, from U.S. Highway 2 to Balsam Road Northwest.

Approximately 28 students in grades 1-5 would be reassigned to J.W. Smith in 2012-13.

Kindergarteners who would normally attend Solway Elementary School in 2012-13 would attend classes at Paul Bunyan Elementary School.

Hess said parents of children living in this area have been notified in writing and invited to share comments with district administrators and the school board.

"It is only under these dire circumstances that we bring this proposal to you," Hess told board members at the meeting. "Because we know that if nothing happens, as far as attendance boundaries for this year, next year Solway will be absolutely overcrowded to the point where all of the students' education would suffer. We needed to step up and make some sort of adjustment."

Finding ways to deal with more kindergarteners enrolling into the school district has been a topic of debate among school board members in the past nine months. Board members have been seeking ways to increase classroom space without building a new elementary school, a proposal voters turned down last year.

Solway and Northern elementary schools are experiencing the highest enrollments among elementary schools in the district, according to Hess. Solway Elementary was built to accommodate one class per grade level, or roughly 175 students. Last year, the school's enrollment topped 200.

As a short-term solution to finding more facility space for elementary students at these two schools, the board voted last year to bring kindergarteners from Solway and Northern elementary schools to Paul Bunyan Elementary School, which was previously used by Head Start classes and school district administrators.

This decision did free up classroom space at Solway and Northern schools, as well as at Central and J.W. Smith, but Hess told board members more needed to be done to keep the classrooms, hallways and lunch room at Solway from being too overcrowded.

"I think as a result of (the proposed elementary school bond) not passing, we're going to continue to wrestle with these types of issues into the future," school board member John Pugleasa said. "Obviously, we want our solutions to be as long-term as possible, but sometimes we have to make adjustments."

Pugleasa said his decision to approve the attendance area change was not made lightly.

"When we make any changes to boundaries, it has a significant impact on kids and families," he said. "And yet, we also need to respect the fact that we've made promises as it relates to class sizes and have set guidelines."

Pugleasa expressed concerns over allowing students to enroll in schools that are not in their own attendance area.

"It's caused us more problems as we become more crowded in the elementary schools," he said. "In the past, there was space available in those schools in the past. But I would suggest we are at a point where it makes it very difficult to do that."

Currently in the school district, the elementary school principal has the final say in whether a student can transfer to another elementary school within the school district.

This year, five students were allowed to attend Solway, a school that was not in their attendance area, according to Hess.