Board of Education delays racial balance vote

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A planned Board of Education vote on a plan to address racial imbalance is on hold after information from the state did not come through in time.

The board had been scheduled to vote on a plan at its Oct. 10 work session that would have created a new magnet program in town and attempted to deal with imbalance at New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue Schools through open choice movement. However, before that vote can be taken, the board said it wants an answer from the state about whether those two schools are considered “unique schools.”

A group of parents, as well as board members Peter Sherr and Peter von Braun, have said they believe the two schools fit under the state’s definition of unique schools due to the fact that they run magnet programs. If that is found to be the case, the schools would be declared exempt from Connecticut’s racial balance laws. However, other board members have said that they believe they are not unique due to the fact that the schools only run partial magnet programs and still bring in students from the neighborhood area.

In order to clarify that question, last month the board wrote a letter to the state formally asking for information on it. As of a special Board of Education forum on the matter on Tuesday night, the town had not received a reply and a parent who had requested the same thing said he had not either. Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said the only feedback the district had received from the state was a set of clarifying questions about enrollment and how the district considers that.

“There’s been no interpretative feedback, just straight factual questions,” Dr. McKersie said.

“At least that means they’re working on it,” Board Chairman Leslie Moriarty replied.

Because there was no answer at hand and because it would take some time to review a response from the state, Ms. Moriarty said Tuesday that she was not comfortable in calling for a vote on Thursday.

“I believe that we do need that response in order to be able to make some decisions,” Ms. Moriarty said. “I don’t believe the board can take any action on a racial balance plan on Thursday night. Board members have to discuss that but that’s my perspective.”

Ms. Moriarty said the lack of a response has left the board in a “holding pattern” and when asked by parents how long she believed it would take from when the town received the answers from the state for a vote to be held, she said that it depended what they were.

“We have to wait and see what the timing is and move forward on that basis,” Ms. Moriarty said.

Parents who spoke at the forum said they were happy to see a delay.

“There’s no option right now on the table that seems to be acceptable to the people of Greenwich who have at least reacted to it so far,” Greg Clark said.

Ben Bianco, who has been advocating a legal challenge against the racial balance statute, told the board it should delay the vote even further, beyond the election next month that will see at least three new members elected.

“I think most parents would agree that you should wait because you’re going to have three or four people voting that aren’t going to be here to defend their conduct or decision,” Mr. Bianco said. “I don’t think that’s fair to Greenwich or fair to taxpayers.”

Ms. Moriarty could still call for a vote Thursday on the issue of facility utilization, which had previously been tied in with the racial balance because the board said they didn’t want to make a decision on one issue that could adversely impact the other. However, any plan on that looks like it will be scaled down to just trying a short-term fix for the overcrowding at New Lebanon School.

Originally, it was believed that there was an overcrowding issue at far more of the district’s elementary schools, some of which are also considered to be underused, but new data shows a smaller than anticipated growth trend in town. Ms. Moriarty said it was initially thought there would be overcrowding problems not just at New Lebanon but also at Cos Cob, Glenville and North Mianus Schools. The new data shows that this could just be an issue at New Lebanon and Cos Cob Schools and even the Cos Cob issue could be less significant than originally believed.

“The problem we’re looking at now is certainly less severe than we thought it was a year ago,” Ms. Moriarty said.

Lisa Harkness, president of the PTA Council, told the board that she was glad the racial balance and facility issues had been “decoupled.”

“As you think about how to assess facility utilization, I’m pleased to see you’re going to have a framework where you’re going to be discussing the merits of the case,” Ms. Harkness said. “You need to consider how each option is going to impact achievement for all the children.”

Clare Kilgallen, a parent at New Lebanon School, said the school’s capital improvements have been “nonexistent” and urged board members to see for themselves how overcrowded it is and how hard teachers are working to keep kids learning.

“We can’t wait three years,” Ms. Kilgallen said. “We can’t wait five years. We need some sort of short term solution now. We need to be shovel ready in June. We need money in the budget this year.”

 

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