ARLINGTON -- The Arlington school board and administration Thursday delved into the possibility of moving sixth-graders into junior high schools in 2013-14, but after nearly three hours of discussion, they decided that the timeline was too optimistic.
Instead, trustees asked administrators to further research the proposed reconfiguration and look at other options, such as creating several early-education centers.
"It's really a big issue," Trustee Tony Pompa said. "I'd rather get it right than rush it and get it wrong."
The idea of moving sixth grade up and converting all 12 junior high schools into middle schools was first considered by district officials a year ago, and then this year when a consultant proposed it as part of a study recommending $22 million in budget cuts.
MGT of America, which the district hired for $170,000, said the realignment would use up excess space at the junior high schools and free up space at the 50 elementary schools.
As an alternative, MGT recommended closing one or more junior high schools to save $600,000 apiece in annual operating expenses.
District officials have cited other benefits, saying sixth-graders fit better with seventh- and eighth-graders both socially and educationally. Fine Arts Director Bill Huff said band students, for example, will get more daily instruction with their instruments in middle school than in elementary school.
"Fine arts would love to make the move," Huff said before the work session. "The instructional time would increase over 50 percent and put us in an environment where the sixth-grade year, which is the beginning year, becomes more equivalent to those districts around us."
But the proposal became more complex as the staff presented its research, some of which contained conflicting messages about educational benefits and whether sixth graders get along with seventh and eighth graders better than with younger students.
However, the administrators said that overall, they believe that the realignment would be good for curriculum.
The realignment would eliminate overcrowding at 11 of the 22 elementary schools that are over capacity. Temporary buildings that take up the slack at most elementaries would be reduced from 113 to about 75, and the new east-side elementary school being designed would eliminate seven more.
But there is a cost. While the junior high schools are at 81 percent of capacity on average -- only Shackelford exceeds capacity, by 12 students -- adding the sixth grade would make 10 junior highs overcrowded. Overall, they would exceed capacity by 2,500 students, or 22 percent.
The plan would be to spend $30 million to expand most of the junior high schools. Bond money from the 1999 and 2009 elections could supply almost $22 million of that, but the district would have to come up with $8.2 million.
The move also would require hiring about 62 teachers and other staffers for about $3.1 million.
The middle-school alignment is more popular among Texas districts with more than 20,000 students, Superintendent Jerry McCullough said. Those districts have 494 middle schools and only 96 junior high schools.
"We have 12 of those 96," he said.
Enrollment is growing, but that hasn't been an overwhelming factor. Associate Superintendent Cindy Powell, citing updated demographics, called it "very, very slow, limited growth." Annual increases of 150 to 350 students are projected over the next 10 years, she said.
During the discussion, several trustees said they wanted to consider buying two or three vacant shopping centers or other commercial buildings and converting them into early-education centers, removing pre-kindergarten and kindergarten from the current elementary configuration. They expected that that would be cheaper than enlarging the junior high schools.
McCullough cited another upside to that option.
"There are a lot of empty buildings in Arlington, a lot of empty shopping centers that would benefit from this," he said.