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River School boundaries won't change, but its programs might

By CHRIS COUNTS

Published: February 27, 2009

DOZENS OF worried residents packed the Carmel Middle School library Tuesday, ready to criticize a plan to reduce crowding at Carmel River School by transferring some of its students to Tularcitos School in Carmel Valley Village.

But before the concerned parents had a chance to sound off on the issue, Carmel Unified School District superintendent Marvin Biasotti put their fears to rest.

“I’m not going to recommend an option that requires a boundary change,” said Biasotti, to the relief of many who attended the district’s board meeting.

The plan would have forced some Carmel-area parents to send their children to a school more than 10 miles away.
Board member Amy Funt agreed with Biasotti and said she wants to avoid any increase in the distance students travel to school.

“Convenience for our families is priceless,” Funt insisted. “We have to weigh the additional cost in human terms.”

Instead of debating the pros and cons of the boundary issue, Biasotti gave a lengthy presentation identifying two alternative solutions to River School’s overcrowding — alternatives that became viable last Thursday when legislators passed California’s budget and drastically reduced incentives for limiting the number of students in a classroom.

Before the new budget was approved, the school district stood to lose an estimated $250,000 because some classes at River School would have too many students. The school, which had 373 students in 2003, now has 461.

Under Biasotti’s first alternative, the district would simply accept the overcrowding penalties. Based on projections, kindergarten, second-and third-grade classrooms at River School are expected to exceed class size limits, costing the district just an estimated $60,000 per year, a number Biasotti said he’s willing to accept to maintain existing academic standards.

“It’s not an insignificant number,” he said. “But its advantages warrant the cost.”

The second alternative — which splits kindergartners into morning and afternoon sessions, frees up an additional classroom, enabling the district to lose only about $13,000 in incentive funding. But the option would also reduce the time kindergarten students spend in the classroom from five hours and 10 minutes to three hours and 15 minutes, and lunch for those in kindergarten would be eliminated as well. Biasotti said he’s opposed to the second alternative because it jeopardizes the effectiveness of the school district’s kindergarten program.

“It looks attractive because it takes class size down and saves money, but it’s not the solution I’m recommending,” he said.
Biasotti said adding more classrooms isn’t an option, at least partly because school construction would require approval from the California Coastal Commission.

Where are all the kids coming from?

Much of the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting was focused on why River School’s enrollment has spiked. At the instigation of some parents, the school district is conducting an investigation to determine how many of its students should be enrolled in another school district, although Biasotti conceded they haven’t caught anyone yet.

“The parents feel there is a likelihood that some children at the school live outside our district,” Biasotti suggested. “They asked us to do an audit. In the coming months, we will be reregistering every River School student.”

Several speakers at the meeting offered high praise for the school district’s performance and suggested its “problem” is the natural result of its popularity among parents. A local real estate agent said he’s heard from out-of-town clients that the school district’s excellent reputation is one of the main reasons people want to move to Carmel.

“You’re a victim of your own success,” Malone Hodges offered. “I got a call last week from an Atlanta family that wants to move to the district.”

The school board said it would use an outside firm to investigate the residency of students to make sure they’re eligible to attend River School.

And one parent urged the district to closely examine utility bills that are submitted as evidence of residency, as they can easily be digitally altered.

Biasotti said the process of determining who belongs in the school district would be easier if more parents took to the opportunity to pre-register their kindergarten students. He encouraged parents to do so at any time, and he reminded them that the next kindergarten session begins in August.

What’s next?

It’s unclear when the school board will vote on which option to choose, but Biasotti said he’s hoping the issue will be resolved in April. The discussion will continue at the board’s next meeting, which is tentatively scheduled for either March 24 or 25 at River School.

Biasotti said he will consult with teachers over the next few weeks so the district can establish thresholds — or limits — to determine how many students each classroom can accommodate without jeopardizing the quality of education. “I’m still confident we can deliver an outstanding program,” he insisted.

Nothing was resolved at the meeting, but many parents were simply thrilled that the boundary change plan was off the table.

“We love our school system.” Carmel Knolls resident David Churchill said. “The prospect of any boundary change stirs deeps passions. It’s a pleasure to hear Marvin recommend something that seems to solve the problem.”