Houston parents share their concerns about new school zones

WARNER ROBINS — While the issue of creating zoning boundaries based on racial demographics heated up Tuesday’s public discussion of new school zones in Houston County next school year, a number of parents demanded the zones focus more on proximity and community ties than fulfilling demographic requirements.

About 1,800 students in the county would be affected by the proposed zoning plans, said Stephen Thublin, assistant superintendent for finance and business operations. Roughly 1,000 will attend Veterans High School in its first year, and 500 to 600 additional high school students would be rezoned elsewhere. About 200 elementary and middle school students also will be rezoned.

One factor affecting the zoning maps is a requirement to comply with a court order dating back to the 1960s under the Justice Department, requiring zones to reflect its black population to enforce integration. Blacks make up 36 percent of the school system’s students, and Houston County has been fulfilling those requirements by remaining within 10 percentage points of that figure in its school zones, said Thublin.

Discussion on that topic reached a point that drove about half of the audience to leave the forum.

Superintendent David Carpenter said a the school system initially created a zoning map based on geographic boundaries and proximity. After calculating the number of students in each zone, the concentration of students was “so out of whack” it would not meet the criteria of the Justice Department or address the overcrowding in other high schools in Warner Robins.

“Anytime you deal with zoning, it’s an emotional issue,” Carpenter said. “We tried to have the meeting with proper decorum, and it’s a shame all those parents walked out.”

Sherry Myers, 42, attended the meeting with her son Jonathan, a second-grader at Perdue Primary School. Jonathan wore a homemade sign that said, “Please let me go to school in my community.”

Because the Myers live in the Royal Oaks subdivision in Kathleen, Jonathan is zoned to attend Perry High School in the future, while most of his friends nearby will stay at Houston County High School.

While high school is still years away for him, Sherry said the changes would separate Jonathan from his friends and community.

“They’re sending us to Perry, and we have no community ties to Perry,” she said.

Sherry said she was among the parents who left during the meeting.

“I was frustrated. To me they were answering the kind of questions that weren’t what people were there for,” she said. “They were turning it into a race issue, and it really shouldn’t be.”

Other parents are concerned about siblings going to different high schools next year. One question read aloud at Tuesday’s meeting came from a parent who will have a senior at Houston County High School and a junior at Perry High School next year.

“Does anybody care?” the card said, which elicited cheers from the audience.

Chairman Tom Walmer responded, saying that only rising seniors who are rezoned would be able to stay at their current schools. Allowances would not be made for younger siblings, which caused school overcrowding when the board made exceptions for them during its last rezoning effort in 2004.

Craig Taylor, 48, of Warner Robins, has a son who is a junior at Northside High School and a daughter who is a freshman there.

The Taylors have lived in the Northside High School district since 1980, but his daughter will be rezoned for Warner Robins High School next year. His son will be able to stay at Northside to finish his senior year.

“My biggest concern is, will the children be accepted from Northside to Warner Robins?” he said.

Taylor feels the long-standing rivalry between Northside and Warner Robins high schools will cause her problems in her new school.

“I’m not sure it’s in the best interest of the children,” Taylor said.

If the proposed school zones are approved, Taylor said he would be willing to move to keep his children at Northside.

“I’m not going to let myself get worked up before it happens,” he said. “Maybe someone will come to their senses.”

Bonaire resident Brad Schlenker, 43, currently has five children in Houston County schools. The Schlenkers’ home in the Thompson Mill Road corridor is closest to the Veterans High site, but his elementary and middle school aged children will be rezoned for Warner Robins High School.

“How much effort has been made to keep kids close to the communities they live in?” Schlenker said.

After his children finish school at Bonaire Elementary and Middle, they will be part of a group of 185 students in the area who will go to high school nine miles across town, he said.

“We’re in the military, we follow rules, but for the 10 percent being yanked from Bonaire Middle, that’s a foul,” Schlenker said.

“It’s not a color thing. This is my friends, this is my community.”

While Schlenker did have concerns about the proposed zones, he also was sympathetic to the decisions the school board faces.

“I greatly appreciate them sitting on the firing line,” Schlenker said. “They can’t make everyone happy.”

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.