With redistricting on the table, School board is considering options

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie addresses parents last week at New Lebanon school. The school is one of several facing overcrowding. — Ken Borsuk photo

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie addresses parents last week at New Lebanon school. The school is one of several facing overcrowding.
— Ken Borsuk photo

Thanks to a districtwide facilities utilization study, the makeup of the town’s elementary schools appears set to change for the 2014-15 school year. But how much and in what way are very much open questions.

Calling it the “launch of a major conversation,” Superintendent of Schools William McKersie helped outline the beginning of a discussion that is set to dominate the rest of the school year at the May 23 Board of Education meeting. Board members were given a look at the data for population in town and the usage of schools, which showed that even though enrollment is dropping overall, there are major spikes in school population at several areas in town, leaving some schools overused and some schools underused.

That means for the first time in decades, there will likely have to be districtwide changes in boundaries that determine what part of town goes to which school. However, no decisions have been made yet, and the Board of Education has yet to even receive formal options to consider. That is scheduled to happen at the June 6 meeting, continuing an aggressive course of meetings including focus groups and public hearings between now and June 20 that district officials hope result in a sense of direction by the end of June, a proposed option in September and a vote on an option in October so it can be part of the budget discussion with the town for 2014-15.

Those options are a full redistricting in town, a districtwide choice program that has partial magnet schools, a partial magnet school system that has magnet zones and redistricting as well as full magnet schools with grade reconfiguration and redistricting. The June 6 Board of Education work session, which will take place at 7 p.m. at North Street School, is expected to have a major focus on those options, to begin fleshing out the board’s direction leading up to the June 20 meeting, which is the board’s last scheduled one until August.

At a meeting with local media before the May 23 meeting, Dr. McKersie said there is no favored option within district leadership and that ultimately whatever decision is made will be done by the Board of Education.

“It’s up to me and my team to bring the board the best analysis, best information and best recommendations possible,” Dr. McKersie said.

This is happening in conjunction with district efforts to bring New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue schools into state-mandated racial balance. But instead of just focusing on those two schools, district officials say that the issue is so extensive there have to be solutions for the entire town.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” said John Curtin, the district’s special projects manager. “This problem is not going to fix itself over time. In fact, it’s going to get worse.”

Because the racial balance is a state mandate, Greenwich will have to deliver status reports to Connecticut’s Board of Education. Dr. McKersie and other district officials are tentatively set to make a presentation to the board on July 10, but specific options are not expected to be discussed at that time. Instead, the town will likely discuss the same presentation given on May 23 about the conditions impacting Greenwich on racial balance and facility utilization. Then, tentatively, the district would return in October for a follow-up to discuss the solution.

Immediate action is being taken to try to address a space crunch at New Lebanon School (see related story on page one). But elsewhere there are also long-term issues. Mr. Curtin said that at Cos Cob and Glenville schools there are kindergarten and first grade classes that, if they stay the same size over the next four or five years, will no longer be able to fit into the building.

An analysis of enrollment projections by the consulting firm Milone & MacBroom found that there are likely to be space utilization problems not just at New Lebanon, Cos Cob and Glenville but also North Mianus and Riverside, which Mr. Curtin said would impact how education is delivered there. Additionally, Parkway, Riverside, Old Greenwich, North Street and the International School at Dundee are projected to be underutilized, leaving only Hamilton Avenue School in what Mr. Curtin called the “sweet spot.”

Overall the district has a goal of having 95% utilization of each building, meaning some schools will be over and others under, forcing a look at a districtwide solution as opposed to the targeted redistricting that happened when Dundee was reopened and students were taken from the North Mianus and Old Greenwich school areas. So while enrollment overall remains stable, Mr. Curtin said, it will have to be “redistributed” around town.

“What we’re realizing is that overall we have about the right amount of space,” Mr. Curtin said. “We don’t need to add a school. We don’t need to close a school. However, the district’s use of the elementary schools we do have needs to change or we are going to have serious problems.”

As intended, the board focused its discussion May 23 on the data put forth by Milone & MacBroom. Board members stressed that it was very important to ensure they had accurate numbers on which to base any decision.

“We’ve got to get this data really nailed down,” board member Peter Sherr said, warning that otherwise the board could be setting itself up to make an “enormous mistake” because of the significance to students throughout the district from the direction it takes.

Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty acknowledged that because a lot of this is based on projections there is never going to be “100% confidence” in the numbers, but that the board had to get to a point where it felt comfortable with the data before narrowing down to any one option.

Whatever action is taken, it will not impact the 2013-14 school year, but rather go into effect for the beginning of the 2014-15 year. With the discussion only beginning, parent reaction was muted at the May 23 meeting, but Anne Vranos, co-president of the North Mianus School PTA, warned the board that wide-ranging redistricting would not be popular.

“That is not an option, it is a last resort,” Ms. Vranos said. “I think I can say on behalf of several parents throughout the district that we bought our homes not necessarily just based on the property or the structure or what we could afford. We bought our homes because we want to attend a neighborhood school and not any neighborhood school, but our neighborhood school. We bought our home because we want to attend North Mianus.”

PTA Council President Lisa Beth Savitz told the board in her regular report that parents were frustrated they had received the presentation material only on the day of the meeting, which she said did not give them time to properly review it. She said this was a problem that had been visible for a long time and having the discussion in late May and early June was the “worst time to do it” because it was the end of the school year.

Later in the meeting, Dr. McKersie responded to that, saying he understood the frustration over the timing but that it couldn’t be avoided. He added that he recognized there was going to be a “highly charged and highly emotional issue” and pledged to continue to communicate and work with parents throughout the process.

“I am going to do my level best as superintendent to be very positive through all of this,” Dr. McKersie said. “All of us owe that to each other. We cannot say, ‘Why wasn’t this done before?’ We cannot say, ‘Why didn’t we cooperate before?’ We have to take this analysis and this expertise and move forward. I know the board will lead us through that. We have to remain positive and forward-looking. There will be tough decisions and tough things to do, but we will come out the other side in a very strong place and that much stronger as a school system.”


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