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Palos 118 shifts East/West border

It was textbook.

Accomplished with nary a peep of protest, the Palos School District 118 board of education voted unanimously Tuesday to change the attendance boundary between Palos East and West schools in order to alleviate the widening enrollment imbalance between them starting when students go back to school in August.

What could have been a contentious period of acrimony and organized demonstrations by parents opposed to the transfer of 150 children from Palos East to West since the district administration first publicly recommended the boundary change in early October, ended peacefully in a roll call vote by board members meeting in the Commons of Palos South School to enact the re-map.

“Few issues evoke as much emotional reaction as moving school boundaries,” district Superintendent Anthony Scarsella acknowledged early on in the process. “Redistricting is a topic most school boards and superintendents hope they never have to face.” Scarsella began to see need to address the Palos East/West enrollment gap steadily growing back when he still served as assistant superintendent for business under the late Supt. Dr. Joseph Dubec, he told parents and the school board on Oct. 20.

A small number of Palos East moms, some tearfully, and one dad had spoken out against the boundary change for various reasons of their own children’s and families’ special and other needs at an Oct. 27 open forum held by the school board at Palos East.

Instead of protests or placards, however, Tuesday’s school board meeting offered congenial pats on the back for organizers of the district’s fourth annual Harvest Fest musical showcase of student talent and the PFA’s hugely successful Boo Bash Halloween celebration before school board member Nadine Scodro moved to approve the implementation of the boundary change, quickly seconded. Scarsella gave a quick summation of his and his administration’s re-map recommendation before board secretary Katie Thomason called the roll.

Noting that the board provided public discussion of the proposed boundary switch at its regular meeting on Oct. 20, that special meeting Oct. 27 at East and again on Nov. 4 at Palos West, Scarsella said board members further discussed it at its fall retreat held last week. Impacted families will be notified of the board’s decision by both email and U.S. mail by today, he added. He then asked whether board members had any final questions.

No questions asked, School Board President John Faustino thanked Scarsella and his administrative team, principals, teachers and fellow board members for their support during what turned out to be a smooth process. “The smoothness is a tremendous reflection of our community,” he said. “I feel so fortunate to live here.”

Faustino reiterated the view that boundary change is “absolutely needed based on where the numbers [student population at each school] are today.” He vowed that the board would work to “have as smooth a transition as possible” for the Palos East students who will take the bus instead to Palos West starting next school year.

Citing enrollment projections based on trends over the past 10 years, Scarsella has warned that the disparity between the growing student body of Palos East compared to the shrinking one at Palos West threatened Palos 118’s mission to provide all students equal access to the same quality education without changing the boundary – and it had to be done quickly by next school year in his estimation.

The kindergarten through 5th grade enrollment at Palos East School in Palos Heights has increased from 674 to 810 students since 2009. During the same period, enrollment at Palos West in Palos Park has declined from 442 students to 365.

That trend will continue relentlessly into the future, according to Scarsella and his administrative team’s enrollment projections, confirmed by an independent professional demographer who looked at all the data given to him by the district and reached the same conclusion.

“If we do nothing we will have 800 students at East and West will have under 400 students” for years to come, Scarsella told the board of education on Oct. 20.

The re-map approved Tuesday will transfer some 150 students from Palos East to Palos West by shifting the boundary line between their attendance areas from La Grange Road eastward to 86th Avenue.

The proposed new map transfers all areas west of 86th Avenue from 111th to 131st streets in Palos Park to Palos West. The planned boundary shift also transfers to Palos West areas south of 131st Street in Palos Heights and unincorporated Orland Township. That places all students who live in Palos Heights’ well-heeled Misty Meadows subdivision in Palos West’s attendance area.

In all, the boundary shift will transfer 72 Palos Hills students, 55 who live in Palos Park and 20 in Palos Heights and Orland south of 131st Street from Palos East to West, according to Chief School Business Official Justin Veihman.

The district provided parents with an exhaustive list of frequently asked questions and answers about the boundary change and kept them updated throughout the process since early October on the district’s website, Palos118.org, which was be updated by today to reflect the decision the board made Tuesday.

The district aims for the change “to impact as few families as possible, and keeping siblings intact.” The district plans open houses, “Buddy Day” visits of transfer students at Palos West and other special activities, so “that no transfer student enters Palos West for the first time” by the time of the district’s annual Back to School picnic held on the front lawn of Palos South in late August, Scarsella has said.

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