By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor

Some students will be assigned to different campuses in Gilbert Public Schools District this fall after the governing board last week unanimously approved new boundaries to alleviate overcrowding at some sites and compensate for declining enrollment at others.

Parents from Val Vista Lakes packed the board room last Wednesday to protest moving their children from Highland High School to Gilbert High, many holding signs that read, “Keep VVL at Highland!!! There are alternatives!”

“I’m a resident of Val Vista Lakes,” said Chris Bolinger. “I bought my house because of the high school. Val Vista Lakes and Highland have developed ties in the last 20 years. This proposal is going to sever that tie and force this community to start over.”

Val Vista parents urged the board to table the proposal, claiming the district’s November release of the plan didn’t give the public enough time to digest what many said were confusing and unclear changes.

They also said the plan will destroy the legacy and history the community has built with Highland.

Although some neighborhoods are shifted to a new school boundary, parents can still send their children to the old school under the state’s open enrollment policy. That allows students to attend any public school outside of their assigned area as long as there is room.

But GPS will provide transportation only for 2019-20 to students who want to remain in their former schools. After that, parents who continue to send their children to the old school will have to find their own transportation.

Donnell Stidhum asked the board to continue providing school buses if enough students from Val Vista Lakes attend Highland High.

Jennifer Ebertshauser, a Highland High alumna who returned to Val Vista Lakes to raise her family, said the plan will destroy a sense of community built up over the years by parents and that she will look for other options – such as charter and private schools – for her children.

Bruce Goodmansen noted that online SchoolDigger.com, which evaluates schools, gives Highland High four stars and Gilbert High three out of a maximum five.

“Property values are determined by the quality of schools children must attend,” he said. “Properties within the boundary of five- or four-star schools are insulated from declining value.”

He admonished the board for not assessing how the plan will affect Val Vista Lakes homeowners.

“How dare you play with the property values of so many families at Val Vista Lakes, especially since none of you live in the community,” he said.

His wife, Pam Goodmansen, a full-time Realtor, said more than 90 percent of her clients look at schools when purchasing a home and most buyers will pay 6 to 20 percent higher for a home in an area with a top-rated school.

Her four children all attended Highland High and now her oldest son, who also has four children, is considering moving back to the community.

She cited a U.S. News & World Report that showed 9.2 percent of Gilbert High students were college-ready compared with 28.1 percent at Highland.

“If the school board doesn’t care about our community, I’ll encourage my grandchildren to go to charter schools. I’ll encourage all my clients to go to charter schools,” she said.

A few people spoke in favor of the plan.

Hope McCormick said Mesquite High has 1,500 students – down from 3,500 – and that if nothing is done, the school will die.

“We need to shift enrollment to even out our schools,” she said. “We lost 1,000 kids in the last four to five years.”

Under the changes, Mesquite High will get a neighborhood that has been sending students to Campo Verde High.

Diann Christensen said her daughter attended Mesquite High and is thriving and taking Advance Placement courses. But it’s been difficult some years for her to take certain classes because there were either not enough students or staffing for them.

Parents won’t put their children in schools that are overcrowded or underfunded, she said.

“I understand the concerns,” Christensen said. “But I hope you can see the best education for every single student in the district is for all to have the resources to allow them to excel.”

She said the health of the entire district is paramount in the climate of competition from charter schools and open enrollment and that the proposed changes are not new and have been in the works for some time.

Wendy Zamora said the district in 2017 looked at other boundary options, including one that had less impact on students, and wondered why the board was determined to go forward with the proposed plan.

She said board President Reed Carr and member Lori Woods still have children in school and questioned why their boundaries didn’t change for their neighborhoods.

She said they had a conflict and should abstain from voting on the issue. Neither Carr nor Woods responded to her comment.

Zamora also presented a list of 14 questions, one that wondered why the Enrollment Management Planning Committee had representatives from select schools but none from affected neighborhoods. She also wondered how the boundary change will affect student athletes under AIA eligibility rules.

Staff later said students would not be penalized because the AIA recognized the boundary change is out of the students’ control.

Board member J. Charles Santa Cruz also asked staff to respond to Zamora’s list of questions for the next board meeting so it can be shared with the public.

Gilbert High student Anneliese Tupa chided the parents who resorted to using scare tactics and said that as adults, they should know how to handle change.

Highland is a great school, but so is Gilbert High, and students can be successful at either campus, she said.

Board member Jill Humpherys said the plan allows for every school in the district to offer a stronger academic program and encouraged parents to schedule visits to their children’s new schools.

She advised them to avoid school ratings on the internet and that the A+ School of Excellence Program by the Arizona Education Foundation was the only credible source.

She said the board needed to focus on the well-being of all the district’s students and with less funding from the state must be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers and use resources wisely. She added she heard from other parents who said the boundaries made sense.

Board member Sheila Rogers Uggetti disputed speakers who said the board came to the meeting with their minds made up.

“We know it’s not been a process that has been easy,” she said. “It’s been very, very difficult.”

She said the current board made a commitment in its policy to give students affected by the boundary change priority to remain at their previous schools, after that of children of district employees.

Santa Cruz said no one has the corner on legacy and that Gilbert High has produced a high number of graduates who have contributed to the community, state and country.

He said the changes are just first phase of what is to come.

“There’s more adjustments that need to happen,” he said, adding sometime in the future the district will have to look at consolidating schools. GPS has over 30,000 students and 40 campuses.