In the next few months, some decisions will likely be made on educational growth issues, particularly adjusting grade levels at elementary and middle schools in Merced and attendance boundaries at individual campuses.
The Merced City School District Board of Education held a two-hour study session this week at the Tenaya Middle School gymnasium. The meeting attracted several hundred parents, staff members and residents.
At least one more public forum will likely be held.
One of the proposals on the table would be to shift sixth-graders from the middle school to elementary schools. That would equalize widely varying enrollments at Merced's elementary schools and possibly delay the need to build another middle school.
Board President Adam Cox said about two dozen people spoke at Tuesday's study session. He said opinion appears to be divided on whether sixth-graders should be in elementary school or in middle school as they are now.
"It's obviously an emotional issue," Cox said. "I'm still completely undecided about what's best socially and emotionally for students, and financially for the district."
Last fall when forums were held to discuss cost-cutting strategies, the possibility of switching sixth-graders to elementary school was mentioned, Associate Superintendent Greg Spicer said. The issues facing the district now are grade-level configurations and school boundaries.
Chenoweth and Peterson elementary schools have more than 800 students. The other 11 elementaries in the district have between 450 and 520 students each, Spicer said.
"There's a lot of interest because it affects all schools," Spicer said. He said it is twice as expensive to build a middle school compared with an elementary campus. The district plans to survey parents about grade-level preferences for elementary and middle schools.
Board member Gene Stamm said that if sixth-graders are moved from middle school to the elementary level, the district won't have to build a junior high school quite as quickly.
Any change in grade assignments or attendance boundaries won't take place until the 2014-15 school year, Stamm said.
Stamm and Cox said the board may make a decision some time in April whether to go forward with those changes. Stamm said more study needs to be done before decisions are reached. Committees studying attendance boundaries and future bond issues will need to be formed.
Stamm said the board would like local schools to have around 600 students each.
Superintendent RoseMary Parga Duran said she wants a clear direction from board members by the April meeting, stressing that several more public meetings will be scheduled.
Duran said most California elementary schools have K-6 or K-8 alignments, and that most parents prefer to keep sixth-graders at the elementary school level. Tuesday's discussion dovetails with recent board action to develop a new long-range, facilities master plan.
Board member Susan Walsh said research on the merits of K-6 class structures needs to be more closely examined. Most of the Merced growth has gone to the north and west, she said, so more study is needed on aligning elementary schools with middle schools.
"We need to involve the whole community," Walsh said. "We have to look to the future, how to make the best use of the facilities we have. We are not doing it (the study) lightly, and not everybody will be happy."
Acknowledging the division of opinion about where to place sixth-graders, board member Darrell Cherf said the board can't please everybody.
"There is a popular misconception," Cherf said, "that we have a plan in mind. I don't have one. I am very pleased with Tuesday's turnout; it's great to have the communication from students, teachers, staff, parents and the community."
Cherf suspects not everyone got a chance to speak Tuesday night. He urged parents to send the board letters or emails with their views, adding that it's very important to keep lines of communication open.
Board member Jessica Kazakos vowed to weigh all options and take the whole district's needs into consideration. She said she has a son who is a fifth-grader, so she can identify with the issue.
Kazakos was pleased with public participation at Tuesday's study session.
"I was very impressed with the attendance; I like to see people come out so we have all the information we need," Kazakos said.
She said the district's elementary schools are off-balance with student population. She said ideally all school sites should be as equal in population as possible.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or email@example.com.