One of the ways that long-shot candidate Ron Mikulaco won the District 1 supervisor seat last month was his tireless canvassing of neighborhoods. Between dog bites, bee stings, sun burns and blisters he heard some recurring complaints, including several over school boundaries.
The easterly Oak Ridge High School boundary has drawn the ire of some Serrano parents who bought homes assuming their kids would attend the local high school, but later learned that their neighborhood is outside the school’s boundaries. Their freshman attend Ponderosa High School in Shingle Springs, eight often-congested miles east, rather than Oak Ridge, which is much closer and in some cases, where nearly all their middle school peers are enrolled.
The new Blackstone community has it much worse. Located off Latrobe Road, Blackstone families send their high schoolers to the under-populated Union Mine High School, located 16 miles east in the rural community of El Dorado.
Local Real Estate Broker Sheri Elliott sums up the situation on her website: “Which high school an El Dorado Hills resident will attend is usually the biggest concern when purchasing a home in El Dorado Hills. The most common question is ‘Is this home within the Oak Ridge High School boundaries?’
“Although both Oak Ridge and Ponderosa schools are top-notch, Oak Ridge tends to be the first choice due to convenience and reputation,” she continued. “Ponderosa is located in Shingle Springs, which is a much more difficult commute for an El Dorado Hills resident.”
The current high school boundaries were redrawn in 2005 and enacted in 2006, following a west county population surge beyond all expectations but before growth came to a screeching halt, leaving overall enrollment declining in the district’s three other primary high schools — El Dorado, Ponderosa and Union Mine — but relatively flat at Oak Ridge.
Early boundary realignment proposals tried to keep Oak Ridge enrollment in check by carving established neighborhoods north of Green Valley Road out of the Oak Ridge boundaries, and were met with predictable howls of protest from affected families.
District officials, led by former El Dorado Union High School District Superintendent Sherry Smith, heard their 2005 constituents and opted for the current boundaries, which carved out the then-unbuilt Blackstone community as well as portions of eastern Serrano under construction.
Oak Ridge’s enrollment for next year is 2,224, comfortably beneath the 2,388 capacity afforded by portable classrooms. A recent demographics study [link] by SchoolWorks, the district’s school statisticians, predicts Oak Ridge’s enrollment will rise slightly, peaking at 2,314 in 2016 then gradually dropping to a low of 2,028 in 2021.
With Oak Ridge enrollment now plateaued below capacity and Measure Q improvements ongoing, families who live in eastern Serrano neighborhoods hope for either a boundary adjustment or a softening of the district’s historically strict student transfer policies.
“We’ve been asking for over three years,” said Catie Phemester, who wants her 11-year old to attend Oak Ridge, and said she’s spoken out at board meetings and via e-mail on the matter, to no avail.
In 2010 Phemester and other families backed challengers Kevin Brown and Todd White for two high school district board seats. Both were elected, defeating incumbents Madeline Restaino and Kirby Ehler.
The group subsequently organized as the Community for Educational Alignment, and are backing a policy authored by Brown that would allow transfers between district high schools for students graduating from “feeder schools.” The so-called “95-5” policy would apply in middle schools where at least 95 percent of the students live in one high school district. The five percent who live outside the district would be allowed to transfer, as long as the target school is under capacity.
The appearance of an attendance/school boundary matter on the El Dorado Union High School’s July 12 board meeting agenda is a glimmer of hope for parents hoping that the district’s strict boundary policies might be softened.
Superintendent Chris Hoffman warned that board-level discussion is strictly procedural at this stage. On Thursday he’ll ask his board if and how to analyze three related enrollment and boundary issues, with potential No Child Left Behind problems at center stage.
No Child Left Behind
The board must plan for the possibility that both Union Mine and El Dorado high schools could be deemed “program improvement” schools under provisions of the No Child Left Behind law because test scores for special education students don’t meet federal targets, according to Hoffman.
“Even though El Dorado has a healthy 792 API score and Union Mine is over 800, they have subgroups that don’t meet all the requirements,” said Hoffman. “We won’t know until fall.”
No Child Left Behind is under intense scrutiny by the Obama administration, and is up for reauthorization this year. The president has granted some states relief from provisions of the law. California has an outstanding waiver request.
By law, students in program improvement schools must be allowed open enrollment to other schools in the district, regardless of school capacity.
Hoffman doesn’t think it will come to that. “It seems like that system’s broken … but it’s still in place so we have to plan for it.”
The possibility of mass transfers out of two of four schools trumps other district boundary concerns, and will likely drive the discussion in the July 12 special meeting. The open session is scheduled to convene at approximately 7:20 p.m. at district headquarters, 4675 Missouri Flat Road in Placerville.
Hoffman said he’s also asking the board to take a fresh look at school boundaries and the intra-district transfer policy, based on how the housing market has unfolded since 2006.
As always, the board will take brief pubic comments on any topic, but Hoffman warned attendees not to expect a substantive discussion of specific boundary issues in this meeting. He promised to involve the public “once we decide how to look at these things.”
Phemester and her husband moved to Serrano in 2005, a decision she said was based largely on the local schools their two children, currently 7 and 11 years old, would attend. They had no idea that they bought inside the Ponderosa High School boundaries.
They live in an area dubbed “the Serrano finger” by locals, a peninsula that juts northwest into Serrano from Bass Lake, consisting of roughly 350 homes off Penniman Drive and Greenview Drive.
Using demographic data from SchoolWorks, Phemester concluded that, on average, her neighborhood generates 10 new high school students each year.
“You can’t tell me that 10 kids per year are going to crush the system,” she said. “There’s more kids than that absent every day.”
Pleasant Grove Middle School, which feeds Ponderosa High School, would also likely qualify for Brown’s 95-5 policy, she said, allowing a handful of students currently forced to attend Oak Ridge to stay with their class at Pondo.
Phemester insists she has nothing against Ponderosa, or any of the EDUHSD schools, pointing out that the other three traditional high schools in the district rank just behind Oak Ridge’s API scores every year.
“These are all great schools,” she said. “This whole thing is about friends, sports and transportation.”
El Dorado Hills kids, including hers, grow up playing sports in Community Services District leagues that provide a strong bond. “These kids could go to any El Dorado Hills elementary school or middle school and know lots of other kids, but they won’t know anyone at Pondo,” she said. “The social implication of losing your friends in the ninth grade is huge.”
Phemester’s not shy about admitting her role in picking her children’s friends. “Like it or not, it’s a parents’ job,” she said. “Kids totally influence each other. We know that, so we encourage the ones we like … with play-dates and such, and discourage the others.”
“But that only works when they’re young,” she added. “At ninth grade you can’t pick their friends any more and you can’t really shelter them; you can only hope they have the tools to say no, and part of that is having friends with the same values.”
Her son enjoys a clutch of solid level-headed friends that she’s worked hard to foster, and will fight to retain. “Face it, there’s a lot of scary stuff going on in every high school.”
Then there are the logistical concerns. Phemester runs a busy software consulting firm in the business park. Her husband works a stricter shift in Folsom. She doesn’t see how they’d handle sports and extracurriculars in Shingle Springs. “We’re just not up there.”
Rather than have their children attend high school in Shingle Springs, the family would move, most likely to Folsom, she said.
Ghost town neighborhoods
They’re not the only ones. “Our neighborhood is becoming a ghost town over this,” Phemester said. “People learn where their kids would have to go to high school and move.”
She cites several families that have come and gone. Local real estate agent Janice Bothwell’s situation, which goes back three-plus years, stands out.
Like Phemester, Bothwell didn’t know she had moved outside the Oak Ridge boundaries, but assumed that because her older son had graduated from Oak Ridge her daughter would be allowed to transfer. Not so.
She tried to sell the house but got no takers. She ended up renting it to her older son and moving into an apartment near Oak Ridge with her daughter.
A district official apparently found the move suspect, and went to great lengths to confirm that Bothwell’s daughter no longer resided in Serrano, including unannounced visits and drive-bys of both the Serrano house and the apartment, sometimes with advance requests for gate codes and open drapes, presumably, she said, to look inside the house.
Frustrated and stressed, Bothwell hired an attorney. The matter was soon dropped, with an apology from the official, she said. Her daughter is now a thriving junior at Oak Ridge but the costs piled up and she eventually lost the Serrano house, she said.
Phemester also has past drama over what she calls her “Bermuda Triangle” neighborhood. Her problems started with little league, which uses high school boundaries, and wanted her son to play in Cameron Park.
She battled little league officials all the way to headquarters in Williamsport, refusing an individual waiver along the way, holding out for a boundary change, which she eventually won.
Two days after that victory she learned that the Rescue school district wanted to move her son from Lake View to Jackson elementary school to balance enrollment. She fought and won that battle too, but then saw the bus route changed. Neighborhood children are now first on and last off, for an average bus ride of 40 minutes each way.
Phemester said she detected a definite anti-Serrano bias during her Little League and middle school battles, , “Like we’re uppity or something.”
“We’re not uppity. We’re middle class,” she said. “My husband and I go to work every day and work hard, just like people everywhere, and we want the best for our kids just like they do.”
Unlike “them,” Serrano residents pay an annual school Mello Roos assessment of 44 cents per square foot of house, which directs $880 per year for a 2,000 square foot house, or $1,320 for 3,000 square feet, to three local school districts.
David Tierney is Phemester’s neighbor. He researched the Mello Roos formation documents and found that the high school district gets 38 percent of the assessment, which currently amounts to roughly $1.7 million per year, and exceeds $20 million in total over the past 20 years.
Phemester laments that his neighborhood her been used to solve a myriad of boundary problems, “schools, Little Leagues … bus routes,” always to the residents’ detriment. “You want our money but we’re always the first one moved.”
With Union Mine High School under-populated and overall enrollments declinging, a fifth conventional public high school in the county now appears at least 20 years away. Tierney worries that El Dorado Hills’ families will be further impacted, resulting in more “neighborhoods like Blackstone sending their kids to Union Mine, and parts of Serrano being diverted to Ponderosa.”
Meanwhile, Serrano residents continue to wonder why the EDUHSD administration has been so rigid about its transfer policy.
“The lengths they went to to keep my daughter from attending the school my son graduated from, in the community I live and work in … I just don’t understand it,” said Bothwell.
Neither does freshman board member Kevin Brown, who said, “We have the strictest intra-district transfer policy in the region, and no one can tell me why.”
Superintendent Hoffman tried to explain. “There is a clear intra-district transfer process and we follow it as closely as any district around, making sure we’re as fair as we can,” he said. “Our policies work very well in keeping our schools filled.”
The policy states simply that student residence should be the primary determinant of the high school attended, with exceptions limited to student safety issues or siblings actively attending a different high school.
Parents employed at another school are also granted transfers for their children, an exception that irks Brown given the otherwise restrictive transfer policies.
“The bottom line is all of our schools are great schools,” said Hoffman. “There are plenty of examples of kids ending up in a different school based on their residence and it working out great for the kids.”
He assured the Mountain Democrat that he hears the concerns of the Serrano parents, which were presented to the board in May, and promised “to put together a process to take a look at it in the fall.”