Don’t rush

FI-EditorialAs the clock ticks on the district needing to address racial balance and facilities utilization, it’s really no
surprise that no response seems acceptable. But the town needs to take care before it makes a mistake.

At last week’s Board of Education meeting four options were presented to the public by consultants, including a townwide redistricting, an end to the traditional neighborhood school model to embrace all magnet schools and reconfiguring the structure of the schools. And parents, not unexpectedly, embraced a fifth option known as “none of the above.”

But the one strategy that seemed to have strong public support might not be the right one either and it could have major consequences.

With First Selectman Peter Tesei leading the way, residents urged the board to, instead of complying with a state mandate to racially balance the schools, challenge the law in court on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional. What was a whisper a year ago when it became clear that current balance strategy wasn’t working and the state wanted results is now a roar.

But if this is indeed the strategy the Board of Education pursues, a few things must be remembered. First, and perhaps most importantly, the town could lose and lose badly, leaving the district a year or so from now in the same position except a lot lighter in the wallet and with the state now an antagonist and not a partner.

The temptation at a time like this is to look at the mandate and pretend to be an expert in constitutional law. It’s unclear if in fact this law violates the constitution. It could well be. But there’s a reason the town has not pursued this strategy in the past. It’s a tough fight that could be costly and not just because of legal fees. The town and the Board of Education must all look carefully before they leap.

This is not to say the mandate is a good thing. It comes across as state meddling where the appearance of balance trumps the ultimate goal of high achieving students no matter where they go to school. No one wants segregated schools, but the issues that result in schools like Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon having far greater minority populations than whites do not start and end in the classroom.

The challenge is deeper, going to the issues of affordable housing and the cost of living in areas like Greenwich. That’s not a problem for the school district, though. District leadership and the board should be focused on making sure the kids at these schools have every chance through teachers and resources to achieve just as highly as the kids at Old Greenwich and Riverside do. Having to racially balance the schools to please the state is, at the very least, a major distraction from focusing on achievement.

But that still doesn’t mean a court challenge will be successful. A law is not unconstitutional just because we want it to be and if this challenge goes forward it must only be because the town is on solid ground and has a good chance to win.

Parental reluctance if not outright opposition to the existing options is perfectly understandable. And embracing a bad option just for the sake of doing something is just as foolish as blindly rushing off to court. If these options aren’t feasible, then the consultants need to work with the board and the community to come up with better ones. There is a timeline in place here, but the important thing is to do the right thing, not the quick thing.

And it must be remembered, as board member Adriana Ospina said last week, that just challenging the racial balance component does not fix either the overcrowding or the underuse of the school buildings. Take racial balance off the table and this still must be addressed.

The town might not yet know what the right path is, but that just means it’s time to work harder to find it.

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