By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Santos Porter said he moved his family to Gilbert’s Val Vista Lakes community specifically so his children could attend Highland High School.

His son is a freshman at the high school and his two daughters, a seventh-grader and an eighth-grader at Highland Junior High, were expected to follow.

“It’s the best place for my kids,” Porter said. “It’s the best school.”

But under Gilbert Public Schools’ proposed boundary changes, Porter’s children would end up going to Gilbert High School instead. And junior high students from that community would no longer attend Highland Junior High School but Greenfield Junior High.

The proposal doesn’t sit well with Val Vista Lakes parents, who have submitted a petition protesting the change to the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board. Val Vista Lakes parent Wendy Zamora said 550 people from her community signed the petition.

“This is not an easy decision, it’s not one we take lightly,” said Reed Carr, who was voted board president by his peers in last week’s study session. “We realize we are disrupting lives.”

The board is scheduled to vote on the boundary changes at a public hearing Jan. 23 after taking public comments. If adopted, the changes would go into effect next school year.

The school district is the larger of the two public school systems in Gilbert with over 30,000 students and 40 campuses.

The district for the last eight to nine years has seen its student headcount drop due to factors such as aging neighborhoods, charter schools and open enrollment, according to Jason Martin, GPS elementary school executive director.

“One of the things we look at is space utilization,” he said.

Some campuses are overburdened with students while others have lost them.

Shifting neighborhoods into different school zones would maximize the use of buildings and help ensure a quality education, Martin said.

For example, Finley Farms Elementary used to have over 1,000 students, now it has under 700, Martin said.

Under the proposal, the Live Northgate apartments and the new Morrison Ranch developments of Lakeview Trails Southwest and Lakeview Trails Southeast would move from Greenfield Elementary to Finley Farms.

If the changes are approved and families find they are shifted to a new school boundary, they can still send their children to the old school under the state’s open enrollment policy – which allows students to attend any public school outside of their assigned area as long as there is room.

But the rub is in the transportation.

The district would continue busing students in the old boundaries but just for the 2019-20 academic year. After that, parents who continue to send their children to the old school would have to find transportation.

Because parents at the three neighborhood meetings in December expressed concern their children would be able to stay at their current school, the district’s open enrollment regulation would give students affected by the boundary change priority to remain at their previous schools – though district employees would have first choice where their own children are concerned – Martin said.

Superintendent Shane McCord advised the board that staff is looking at a policy change with open enrollment.

Currently, students who attend a school outside their district boundary must re-apply each year to attend that school.

Under the proposed change, students would have to fill out paperwork just once for the duration they are attending the school and then again when they go to junior high and later high school, he said.

Carr said the district wants to honor school choice but doesn’t have the funds to provide transportation to students in the old school zones beyond a year.

He asked staff to find ways to alleviate parents’ concern over transportation.

For instance, only juniors and seniors are allowed to park on campus, but he wondered if the district could allow students reaching near the end of being a sophomore to do the same.

Porter said if the changes go through, he would need to buy his son a car when he is able to drive so he can also take his sisters to the high school.

Zamora said if the changes go through, her son, who is in eighth grade but wants to attend Highland High, would have a three-mile walk to walk to the school.

Dawn Antestenis, marketing and communications director, briefed the board on the district’s outreach and feedback on the proposal.

The district in November launched a webpage with the proposal, sent out email notifications to families and a postcard notification to 69,000 households living in the district’s boundary, she said.

As of Jan. 6, the district has received 134 online comments from the community with 60 opposed to boundary changes,  55 in favor, seven neutral and the remainder were questions, according to Antestenis.

Board member Jill Humpherys said the board is tasked with making a difficult decision.

“We are here focused to do what is right for every student and be fiscally responsible,” she said. “It’s a community and a board’s decision, but we have to consider all students.”

She advised parents to take a tour of their children’s potential new campus, which can be booked online on a school’s website, and talk with the principals.

“I would encourage people to investigate all their options,” Humpherys said.

She said parents should take a school’s state ranking and letter grade with a dose of salt.

The grades, which rely heavily on AzMERIT test scores, are tied to the economic conditions of the students and not to how well a school teaches, she said

“Just because a school is not an “A” or a “B” grade doesn’t mean it’s a bad school,” she said. “Take these letter grades with a dose of salt. Parents need to go to the school and not look at a website and think they understand the school.”

But as far as parent Zamora is concerned, Highland High School is her school of choice.

“My daughter graduated from Highland last year,” she said. “I understand what it offers. It’s a fantastic school.”