Town examines challenge to school balance mandate

After a meeting in which none of the proposed options to deal with racial imbalance and facilities utilization were deemed acceptable, the town could well be eying a new strategy that could bring it to court with the state.

With two schools considered out of balance by Connecticut due to its mandate for racial balance and the district facing an ongoing facilities utilization issue, with schools either overcrowded or underused, the district is attempting to rectify both issues at once. This has led to discussion over possible redistricting or new magnet programs, but at a special Board of Education meeting last Thursday, four options were presented to the board and the public by outside consultants.

Of those options, though, two were immediately dismissed while the other two met resistance and reluctance. And instead what emerged from the meeting was a willingness by some members of the board and hundreds in the public to challenge the state’s racial balance mandate in court on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Parents packed the meeting in the Greenwich High School auditorium and more than 70 speakers signed up after close to two and one-half hours of discussion between the board and consultants from the firm of Milone & MacBroom and they were not shy about expressing themselves, openly booing when an option was presented that would essentially do away with the neighborhood school concept and cheering loudly when challenging the state mandate was suggested by board members and by First Selectman Peter Tesei, who called this “probably the most significant issue to face the town in some time.”

“Clearly there is a significant amount of frustration with the state of Connecticut,” Mr. Tesei said. “It is imposing something against our will and I would certainly support, as I’ve talked about internally, any sort of assessment of that law in terms of its constitutionality and applying town resources to it… There’s something fundamentally wrong with this and the state of Connecticut has the slogan that we’re ‘still revolutionary.’ That’s what they’re marketing us as. Well, I think it does require us to be a little bit revolutionary in challenging this because we are going to wind up destroying the fundamental basis of this town by diluting neighborhoods.”

Before the discussion even began, Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty said that under previous discussions the board had not felt it was a good use of town resources to challenge the law when there was no clear indication it was unconstitutional. But now the board was reconsidering this and would meet with town counsel on it.

Later in the meeting, board member Peter von Braun said that the board had to be prepared to go outside the usual legal channels for an opinion.

“If we’re going to consult with counsel, it ought not to be with the general attorney or the town attorney,” Mr. von Braun said. “It ought to be with a highly experienced constitutional lawyer.”

Under a plan outlined by Superintendent of Schools William McKerise, the board is supposed to have at least a clear sense of direction by its June 20 meeting, which is the last scheduled one before summer break. The board would then vote on an option in the fall so it could be implemented for the 2014-15 school year. But the reaction last week means new options could soon be called for and Dr. McKersie expressed willingness to work with that last week.

Currently two of the district’s elementary schools, Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, are considered by the state to be in racial imbalance because of the preponderance of minority students there. New Lebanon is also the school facing the most immediate space crunch with new teachers slated to be brought in to deal with a projected overabundance of students.

And while the crowd was solidly behind a challenge in court, there are concerns about how practical it would be and whether Greenwich could win.

Selectman Drew Marzullo, who attended last week’s meeting, told the Post he was skeptical that this was the right tactic.

“Instead of fighting a losing battle and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on suing the state one should be asking what the consequences are if Greenwich does not comply,” Mr. Marzullo said. “The racial balance idea is a loaded term. Equitable education for all students is the goal. Performing standards must improve. That is where our efforts should lie. No one likes the idea of having their children ‘bused’ out of their neighborhood no matter what part of town you are from. The kids in New Lebanon want to stay. They just want bigger classrooms and want to be able to academically compete. Is that too much to ask?”

Board member Adriana Ospina said at the meeting that this could leave major issues to be unattended if the board focused on a court challenge.

“We cannot forget that New Lebanon is overcrowded,” Ms. Ospina said. “We still have to address that and there are other schools, whether you believe the data or not, are on the verge of being overcrowded. We have to keep that in mind as we consider next steps.”

The state Board of Education is expected to hear from Dr. McKersie on July 10 about the district’s response to the racial imbalance, and specific options are not likely to be discussed then. Instead, the state board is slated to hear about the conditions in Greenwich, with options to be discussed in the future.

Board member Peter Sherr also wondered if a change was even necessary. Representatives from Milone & MacBroom were on hand to explain the projections and why they were confident there had to be adjustments to meet student population trends, but he was skeptical, saying the board had to be very careful before making an expensive mistake if data ended up swinging in the opposite direction.

“I get very nervous taking that data set and projecting it forward,” Mr. Sherr said, expressing doubt about what was found specifically about Riverside School’s population. He called for additional options to be explored.

Michael Zuba from Milone & MacBroom said the options were not based on projects, but rather on the actual enrollments in the district from Oct. 1, 2012. Dr. McKersie said there would not be perfect data, but said decisions would have to be made regardless.

“We do know we have several overcrowded schools and, like it or not, we’re under citation from the state under the law,” Dr. McKersie said.

Mr. von Braun, and other board members, pressed for more work to be done by the consultants, including interviewing residents personally and doing surveys for “human research.”

“If we were introducing a new product, we would be thrown out of our company if we didn’t do a substantial amount of consumer research to find out what our customers want,” Mr. von Braun said. “This room is full of customers of the school system.”

Two of the options presented last Thursday appear to be instant non-starters. Both members of the public and board members expressed opposition to two full redistricting plans. One would have moved approximately 850 students and another would have moved close to 900. The analysis from Milone & MacBroom found that while this would have helped with overall enrollment balancing in the district and would have brought racial balance to Hamilton Avenue, but there would have been continued issues at New Lebanon. The plan for 850 students would not have brought that school into balance and the one for 900 is projected to provide balance, but not in a way that could be deemed sustainable.

“I would not support this at all in any situation,” board member Jennifer Dayton said. “It doesn’t help us at all with racial balance.”

The option that had even stronger disapproval from the packed auditorium of parents would essentially do away with the current neighborhood school setup in town. That option would have instituted a districtwide choice throughout town where parents would choose first, second and third choice schools and students would be assigned thusly with lotteries held when necessary and, when unable to get in any of the schools chosen, placed randomly in the district based on space.

“This does not figure to be a popular option and I don’t think there’s much support for it on the board,” Ms. Moriarty said.

While they didn’t get the intensely negative reactions that the first two options got, the remaining presented options weren’t exactly embraced either. Option three would have partial magnets throughout the district where schools could either be magnet or neighborhood schools and the current school model would be evaluated to determine what would be the most effective magnets. Under this plan New Lebanon, North Street and the International School at Dundee would become partial magnets and the district would be drawn into “magnet zones.”

The fourth option would involve reconfiguring the district into three intradistrict magnet schools for grades kindergarten through fifth and the remaining schools turned into pre-K to second grade and third through fifth grade schools. Glenville North Street and Dundee would be the full magnets for K-5 and the other schools would then be partnered together in “sister school pairings.”

Parents have called for an increased residency verification effort to determine whether all kids attending school in town are doing so properly. So far Dr. McKersie has resisted, saying the current process of checking on a case by case basis is effective but last week Ms. Moriarty said the board was considering a “one-time” residency verification for grades K through five.

“However, you have to understand the resources required to implement that and the impact on other school initiatives,” Ms. Moriarty said. “The residency verification process requires more documentation so it does have an impact on families to provide that information as well as our staff to review and vet this. The board will consider this, though. We just need more information on timing and cost and then we can determine if its a good use of our time and resources.”

Mr. Tesei pledged to help this effort with information from Town Hall.

The Greenwich Board of Education will hold a forum tomorrow, June 14, at 11 a.m. in the Town Hall Meeting Room and again on June 19 at 7 p.m. at Eastern Middle School. The board will then discuss next steps at its June 20 meeting at Greenwich High School at 7 p.m.

 

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