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Editorial: With growth in a school system comes difficult job of redrawing district lines
Brian Kovach addresses Hall County Board of Education members and school officials during a public hearing on proposed redistricting lines Tuesday night at Flowery Branch High School. - photo by Norm Cannada

If you live in a growing, vibrant suburban or exurban area, there are certain things you learn to expect; niggling, predictable worries that are part and parcel of an envious quality of life.

In good economic times, the real estate market is going to thrive, the value of your property is going to increase, and you may end up paying more in taxes.

Commercial and retail growth follow residential rooftops, and eventually roads will be overwhelmed and traffic snarls will become the norm.

Eventually, your neighborhood parks and rec program will become so popular with area youngsters that youth league sports events start at 8 a.m. on Saturdays and run long after dark.

At some point, a building that has always served as a landmark will be demolished for something else.

Growth in student population will require the construction of new schools, and when that happens school attendance lines will be redrawn, and many people will become angry.

Some South Hall residents are feeling the brunt of that last bit of community growth reality, as plans for new schools in the area have system officials looking at ways to redraw school attendance zones in such a way as to maximize efficient usage of school space.

It is a process that has been undertaken time and time again in the suburbs around Atlanta, and one that never fails to generate anger and frustration among those immediately affected by the altering of attendance zones.

Those frustrations are easily understood. For many, schools are the focal point of their community lives. Whether they are Falcons, Knights, Trojans or Vikings, families identify with the schools their youngsters attend, and spend much of their lives involved in activities that revolve around their neighborhood schools.

So anything that disrupts those school communities is difficult to accept. And yet, if a community is growing, those disruptions are also impossible to prevent.

Some school systems — especially those whose growth rates are especially rapid, like neighboring Gwinnett — have dealt with the problem by building increasingly larger schools.

Logistically, doing so reduces the frequency with which new schools have to be built, and extends the time between the necessity of redrawing attendance lines. But it also results in massive, impersonal high schools with daily populations the size of small towns, and student population numbers that exceed many small colleges.

County school officials decided years ago this was not what was needed in Hall County, and growth in student numbers has not been so dramatic as to make such megaschools necessary.

Over the past 10 years, the county school system has grown by some 2,400 students, but for three of those years, when the economic downturn was at its worst, there was virtually no growth at all. As the economy has improved, the numbers of students each year has increased, and projections suggest the system may grow as much in the next five years as it did in the last 10.

So, more classrooms are a necessity. And if you’ve made the philosophical decision that megaschools are not what you want in your community, then building new schools and redrawing attendance zones are the only viable options.

The decisions on which schools to build and where for the South Hall area in question this year was made long ago. The topic on the table for discussion now is where the students will come from to fill those schools.

The school system knows this isn’t a palatable process for some families and has made a conscientious effort in this year’s South Hall redistricting process to lessen the hurt by allowing students to choose to attend a school outside their attendance zone if there is adequate space in the preferred school to do so. That is certainly not the norm in many high growth school districts, where there are no options once lines are drawn.

The current redistricting process is somewhat different in that it involves implementation of school location and building plans that were expected to be done sooner, but were delayed when the economy tanked and student growth slowed. Had the rate of student growth not hit a speed bump in 2008-10, the current issues would already be resolved and new schools opened.

In recent public meetings to address plans for redrawing attendance zones, critics have complained about a lack of openness in the process, but we have to wonder what it is they expect the school system to do. Information about the building and redistricting process has been publicly available for years, it has been posted online, published in this newspaper, written about and discussed in public meetings. None of what was going to happen has been a secret.

The necessity of building new schools and shifting attendance lines is evidence of growth and change in the county that wouldn’t likely be happening if we did not enjoy the benefits of a strong local economy and an exceptional quality of life. The down side is that as long as that growth continues, the need to revamp the plans for schools is going to repeat itself. This year it is South Hall that is feeling the redistricting pain, but other parts of Hall County will be going through the same process in the years to come.

While the process may be difficult for some to accept, the reality is that it has only been about 15 years since the modern Flowery Branch High School opened, along with Chestatee High School the same year. And while there were critics of that process as well, you would be hardpressed to find residents in those communities today who would argue that they would have been better served by leaving things as they were.

None of which is to say parents shouldn’t let their voices be heard as part of the process. They should, and they have. School officials should be expected to devise school zones that make the most sense logistically, disrupt the fewest neighborhoods possible, are the most financially viable, and, most importantly, provide the best possible opportunity for students to get an exceptional public education.

Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.