Tonight, school options to be further discussed

classroomWhen the Board of Education meets tonight the discussion is once again expected to center around the response to facility utilization and racial balance issues.

The board is looking for a solution that will address both Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools being in violation of the state-mandated racial balance law for student populations as well as a districtwide space utilization problem that has left some schools overcrowded and others underused. There have been four options presented to the board by outside consultants, including going to an all-magnet school program, townwide redistricting and a “sister school” solution that would blend schools together, but none of them have found much acceptance, either from parents or the members of the board.

Tonight’s meeting will be held at Greenwich High School in the auditorium, starting at 7 p.m.

Leading into tonight’s discussion, which will include a public hearing, district leaders have stressed that despite the four options on the table, no decisions have been reached.

“There have been no plans made and no decisions made,” Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty said. “There isn’t even a specific plan that’s being targeted at this point in time.”

The plan is to further refine the options by the end of tonight’s meeting, which is the last one scheduled before the summer, so the board will have a better sense of what it won’t do and what plans could potentially work. The board is not scheduled to hold a vote on an option until October, at the earliest. There will be additional meetings with public discussion in the fall.

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said that the options cover all areas for addressing enrollment issues as everything, other than charter schools, is on the table. He stressed these were “conceptual options” and “the board can mix and match them and the community can say they like these parts but not those parts.” He said the goal at this stage is to make sure the board has enough information to know what those options look like.

“The conversation is going to continue here,” Dr. McKersie said. “This is an ongoing process.”

The possibility continues to exist that the town will challenge the state’s racial balance mandate. Several members of the public, including First Selectman Peter Tesei, have called for this. Ms. Moriarty said it was being explored and there were meetings with counsel ongoing to determine the board’s options. She added the board was also exploring what the consequences would be if it simply did not comply with the mandate. It was possible the state could bring suit against the board, and Ms. Moriarty noted that the Greenwich board derived its authority from the state, giving it a lot of the power.

“There hasn’t been any explicit conversations about ‘What would you do if you didn’t comply?’ and I’m not sure we want to go into those conversations, but that’s something we need to better understand,” Ms. Moriarty said.

Dr. McKersie said he spoke last week with Stefan Pryor, commissioner of the state’s Department of Education, after the commissioner called him and assured parents in town that the state is hearing them.

“He wants this to work out as well as possible,” Dr. McKersie said. “He’s not saying he’s going to change the law, but he asked me where the parents were on this and where the community was on this. We now know. It’s varied. It’s diverse. But we can now say to the commissioner we have heard from Greenwich.”

As part of the discussion planned for tonight’s meeting, Dr. McKersie has said that suggestions from members of the public will be introduced. He has not specified which, if any, will be considered as potential options, but said all the suggestions will be listed for people to review. A FAQ on the issues facing the board is already up on the district’s website at Greenwichschools.org.

In anticipation of tonight’s meeting, there have been several public forums in recent weeks, the last of which was scheduled to be held last night. On June 14, Dr. McKersie and Ms. Moriarty, along with several other board members, attended a hearing at Town Hall where residents once again brought their ideas about how this situation should be approached.

Several Parkway School parents appeared to speak about the fourth option and the possibility of being in a “sister school” relationship with New Lebanon School. While that option is only conceptual, it has raised concerns about the long distance travel for students and parents. Parent John Friel called it a “horrendous” option and an “enormous burden” for parents, not just at Parkway, but throughout town.

“I love my neighborhood school and no one should be forced to be bused out of their neighborhood school involuntarily,” parent Laurie Fields said, adding that not only would it be unfair to subject New Lebanon and Parkway kids to such long bus rides, but it would “destroy neighborhood character” in both school areas.

Beyond her own situation, Ms. Fields said the “sister school” option would have a negative impact all over town on academics by denying them the advantages of neighborhood schools, a sentiment echoed by other parents in attendance. She, among many other speakers, urged the district to look at solely voluntary methods for dealing with student enrollment.

“This is a very nuanced problem and I’m afraid you’re taking a sledgehammer to something that requires a scalpel,” parent Beth Kallet-Neuman said. “First try the smaller approach and then go to the larger solution.”

Dr. McKersie repeated that no decisions were being made at this part of the process.

“We want everyone to get their opinions out during this several week period and then set the board up to then get more specific about what charge it will make to the administration in developing ideas,” Dr. McKersie said. “Several people have come to me and said ‘take this off the table’ and I hear that.”

Parent Elizabeth Schroe asked the board not to move too quickly and to explore more options.

“I agree that there’s not going to be an ‘ah-ha’ moment where we see something that’s the best thing since sliced bread,” Ms. Schroe said. “I understand that we need to get this off the docket and we need to make things back to normal so you can go back to what your objectives are. But we haven’t come up with that moment that even has that ‘ah’ in it, forget about the ‘ah-ha.’”

Benjamin Bianco, a resident and practicing attorney, discussed a plan of his own that had voluntary reassignment instead of the forced redistricting in one of the options. In his proposal, which also discussed racial balance and academic performance, Mr. Bianco said the Board of Education would review enrollment at each public school every year and ones with overcrowding would designate “an appropriate number” of slots for interschool reassignment as would underenrolled schools. Parents would be able to request one of these slots at an overcrowded school and students would be reassigned to underenrolled schools based on residential proximity.

Ms. Moriarty thanked Mr. Bianco and said the board would look at whether voluntary choice would be a feasible alternative and if parents would be interested in it since it meant moving their child. She said the board would have to do “more market research, if you will” to see what features, such as transportation, academic courses or before- and after-school programs, would entice families to leave their neighborhood schools.

Ms. Moriarty added that she wanted parents to know that they were listening.

“I haven’t heard one parent say they want change in their district,” Ms. Moriarty said. “People are comfortable with what we do in town. They like their neighborhood schools and nobody wants any change.”

Based on public comment, Ms. Moriarty repeated last week that the board was “considering” doing residency verification to make sure every child attending the public schools actually lives in town. This has been a frequent complaint at New Lebanon School, which is facing the biggest and most immediate space crunch. There is a process to investigate residency claims on a case-by-case basis already in place, but this would be a complete verification process covering kindergarten through fifth grade.

Ms. Moriarty said that there had not been a final decision made on this issue, though.

“We don’t want the rumors to persist that we are working with incorrect information about how many students we should be supplying education services to,” Ms. Moriarty said. “It would be a one-time residency verification but we all need to recognize that it’s a significant effort on the part of our staff and it will take time and money. It will impact parents too.”

 

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