Herald-Whig View

Panel's role critical in school boundary plans

Posted: Sep. 4, 2016 2:25 am

THERE IS visual evidence of the Quincy School District's multi-year, $89 million building and reorganization program. A new structure is taking shape near Monroe School, and high school students, now including ninth-graders, are taking classes in a larger, renovated building with improved technology.

Now comes arguably the most challenging -- and potentially the most contentious -- phase of the school reorganization and building plan: Determining where every elementary student in the district will attend classes.

Undoubtedly, the most-asked question by parents of elementary-age students and younger since the bond issue was placed on the ballot two years ago, and later approved overwhelmingly by voters, has been, "Where will my kids go to school?"

There has been only speculation so far as the school district has worked to identify three suitable building sites aside from existing ones at Monroe and Baldwin schools. However, an answer could finally be forthcoming by early next year.

School officials last week laid out plans and a timetable for determining boundaries for the five new K-5 buildings. A 30-member panel, the Boundary Advisory Task Force, will be formed to assist in this effort. Among its objectives will be to achieve a more balanced socioeconomic demographic in each building, while simultaneously distributing students evenly to maintain balanced classroom sizes and school populations.

Clearly, this will not be a simple undertaking. The district is downsizing to five elementary schools from seven and eliminating the intermediate school for grades 4-6. Familiar boundaries will need to be adjusted. However, those changes, while dramatic, will not be as logistically challenging as ensuring socioeconomic diversity in every school.

That's why it's imperative for the school district to assemble a divergent panel and be transparent throughout this four-month process that is scheduled to conclude with a decision by the School Board in January. The outcome will be as transformational as the 2-to-1 margin by which voters approved the measure in November 2014.

The plan calls for the task force to be established this month, meet six times and offer its recommendations to the School Board in December. These meetings will be held behind closed doors because the committee, as constructed, will not be subject to the Open Meetings Act. As Business Manager Joel Murphy explained, this will enable the panel to "have some conversations, in some cases very tough conversations, without scrutiny."

The belief is that frank and constructive conversations are more likely if panelists and school officials don't have to be concerned with how comments and ideas may be interpreted and analyzed. Logically, that approach certainly has merit, however, public engagement is essential. The district must take great care to ensure that segments of the community don't feel shut out of the process. There should be some level of scrutiny when taxpayer funding is involved.

Only one public forum is being planned to hear questions and comments from the community. Perhaps there should be more. Or, at least, other avenues developed to ensure ongoing disclosure and dialogue.

The success of the bond issue, the first building referendum approved by voters in four decades, was largely due to the openness with which the plan was presented and explained. That resulted in the community overwhelmingly throwing its support behind the initiative, guaranteeing its success.

This next step is just as important, and it begins with the formation of the task force.

We urge residents from all walks of life to be engaged. Completed applications to serve on the task force may be sent via email to boundary@qps.org. They also may be mailed to or dropped off at the QPS Board of Education Office, 1416 Maine, Quincy, IL 62301. People without internet access can pick up paper applications at the board office. The deadline is Sept. 12.

Clearly, Quincy is well on its way to achieving the stated goal of creating a more conducive learning environment for its most valuable resource for generations to come. With each step, each decision, it's critical that we remain resolute in that commitment.