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Mayor pans GCPS redistricting proposal

Photo by Tori Boone

Photo by Tori Boone

DULUTH -- Mayor Nancy Harris addressed a packed house Monday during the City Council meeting, reading a unified statement to residents voicing her and the council members' opposition to a proposed GCPS redistricting plan. Harris assured residents that she would read the statement to Gwinnett County school board members at Thursday's public hearing, as well.

The proposed redrawing of boundaries would affect about 700 students in 7 schools: Peachtree Ridge High, Duluth High, Hull Middle, Duluth Middle, Mason Elementary, Harris Elementary and Chesney Elementary. Under the proposed plan, 580 students would shift from the Peachtree Ridge cluster to the Duluth cluster. Peachtree Ridge High School is over-crowded, so a change of boundaries makes sense.

"Citizens were surprised by the proposed redistricting, and it's taken 10 years of work to repair" after the last one a decade ago, said Harris, who said she expected this redistricting to balance both school clusters. The mayor said Monday that Duluth lost many neighborhoods and people who live in the city limits to Peachtree Ridge. Duluth High School also lost the north and central areas on Buford Highway, resulting in loss of support from local businesses who threw their dollars behind Peachtree Ridge instead of Duluth.

Harris said Monday that the proposed plan redistricts a lot of "transitional" housing into the Duluth cluster -- apartments, extended stay motels and starter homes. The more established, stable neighborhoods would stay in the Peachtree Ridge cluster. The financial backing and parental support, said Harris, make a big difference in the success of a school.

Another contributing factor to overcrowding at Peachtree Ridge is the permissive transfers granted to students who choose to go to that school instead of Duluth because the art and athletic programs in the higher-income cluster are stronger. Retention rates, income levels and graduation rates are better at Peachtree Ridge High than at Duluth currently; if the proposed redistricting is approved, the disparity in statistics will be even greater.

Harris and City Council members represent families in both school clusters, and city leaders want to see a fair and equitable solution for both clusters.

The affected area is west of Duluth Highway and east of Pleasant Hill Road. It extends north from Interstate 85 up to the current cluster boundary. The new school attendance boundaries, if approved by the school board, would move 270 students from Mason Elementary to Harris Elementary, 130 students from Hull Middle to Duluth Middle and 180 students from Peachtree Ridge High to Duluth High. The elementary school move would also have a domino effect within the Duluth cluster. As a result of moving students over from Mason, the school system is planning to move 120 students from Harris Elementary to Chesney Elementary.

Both mayor Harris and Gwinnett County Board of Education member Mary Kay Murphy (who represents the affected areas) are encouraging residents to provide input on the proposed maps. Input forms, available at the affected schools and on the school system's website, can be submitted to the Planning Department through April 1.

School boundary committees have also been holding meetings to gather community input, Murphy said. The boundary committees consisting of educators and parents at affected schools will submit their recommendations for the redistricting by April 11.

Greg Lock, Duluth's Planning Commission Chairman, encouraged residents to contact Board of Education members, politely but firmly making their concerns known.

"I'm very pleased the community is getting engaged in the process," Murphy said.

When asked what she thought of the current proposal, Murphy declined to comment specifically.

"The map is preliminary, and for me to comment on it would be preliminary as well," Murphy said. "I'm hopeful that the map will change as a result of the community input."

The unified statement from Mayor Harris and city council will be featured in its entirety on the city's website beginning today.