Redistricting is off the table for school board – Legal challenge possible

Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty, at left, and Superintendent of Schools William McKersie discuss the options that will be developed over the summer. — Ken Borsuk photo

Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty, at left, and Superintendent of Schools William McKersie discuss the options that will be developed over the summer.
— Ken Borsuk photo

The Board of Education might not have a clear path toward what it will do to both satisfy the state mandate to racially balance schools and deal with facility utilization issues, but it is willing to say what it won’t do.

At the final Board of Education meeting before the summer break last Thursday, several items were taken off the table for consideration, including deeply unpopular options for a broad-based redistricting and abandoning the neighborhood school structure for one of all magnet schools. Those options had met with instant negativity from both the public and members of the board so their removal was a mere formality, but they weren’t the only ones eliminated.

Several other ideas, including redistributing grades and carving Greenwich up into two districts, which was a parent suggestion, were also cut from the list. The board is eyeing a vote on a solution in the fall and other potential options were kept for future consideration, including voluntary choice, a partial magnet that would include some redistricting, and offering students at overcrowded schools the chance to move to underused schools.

But even though some options remained open, Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty said people should not assume they were favored.

“We want to ask the administration to develop fully developed plans on the concepts we’re identifying so at our Aug. 29 meeting, which is the first meeting of the new school year, we can focus on specific proposals,” Ms. Moriarty said.

Charter schools rejected

There was a call from some board members to consider charter schools as an option to deal with racial balance, but Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said that this would not be supported by the state, given conversations he has had with Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor. Board member Peter Sherr challenged this, saying it wasn’t right for the state to take options off the table before Greenwich could fully consider them.

“We should submit a plan that makes sense for Greenwich,” Mr. Sherr said.

Dr. McKersie replied, “I’m trying to do the due diligence for Greenwich. If the board wants to submit a proposal that the commissioner has already said no, he will not accept, you’re fully in right to do it. I’m not telling you don’t submit it. I’ve started charter schools. I’m a charter school advocate.”

There was also opposition to charters from the board. Board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill compared pursuing that plan to “playing chicken” with the state.

“I’m not sure I want to lose that game or even play that game with the state,” Ms. O’Neill said. “I wouldn’t want to put anything on the list that we’re not willing to go to bat for.”

Board member Steven Anderson said that pursuing a charter for some kids would be like taking a problem and “washing our hands of it.” He said he hadn’t heard from anyone in the New Lebanon or Hamilton Avenue school communities calling for it, just people outside those parts of town saying it should go there. Mr. Anderson said that was a “very elitist” approach and ultimately it was pulled off the table by a 6-2 vote.

Legal challenge alive

One response that is still very much alive is for the town to challenge the state on its mandate that schools must have racial balance in their student populations. The law, which looks only at numbers and is not meant to look at achievement gaps or academic performance, states that because they have too many minority students when compared to white students, both New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue Schools are considered to be in racial imbalance. A failure to correct this could result in action from the state, but what that might be is still unclear.

In recent weeks there has been a growing push from parents toward challenging the mandate in court on the grounds that it is unconstitutional. While no decision has been made to go forward with a challenge, it remains on the table for further discussion and the town is seeking legal opinions to see if a challenge is feasible and what it could cost. Mr. Sherr said it was vital to get the information about this so the board could decide one way or the other about pursuing it.

“As long as this is there it will burn up time for boards of educations and it will keep us from having conversations about how to improve the lives of kids in schools,” Mr. Sherr said.

Dr. McKersie is scheduled to meet with Mr. Pryor on July 10 to give a status report on the town’s response to the mandate. Specific plans are not expected to be discussed then. But the state is likely to want more specifics in the fall.

Immediate concerns

Aside from the racial balance issue, questions have persisted, particularly from Mr. Sherr, about how much of a space crunch there really is within the district. He has expressed doubt about projections made by outside consultants Milone & MacBroom, though the firm has stated repeatedly that the numbers on which the options were based are the actual enrollment figures in the district, not the projections.

While there has not been similar doubt from other board members, they did say they should make New Lebanon, which has a demonstrated space crunch coming this fall, the priority and then deal with other schools.

“I’m not saying I’m not concerned about capacity across all the other schools, but the board has to address New Lebanon immediately,” board member Jennifer Dayton said.

Ms. O’Neill did urge her colleagues not to defer decisions, though.

“If we don’t address the problem now, we’re just kicking the can down the road and we’re going to have a problem when many of these issues pop up again,” Ms. O’Neill said.

Mr. Sherr responded by saying he wanted to see how the data developed once more information was in about enrollment in September and before any decisions were made. Ms. Moriarty insisted it was possible for the board to look at options in the fall to deal with facility utilization without having forced redistricting.

One decision the board did make official was to go ahead with a residency verification check for all students in the district in kindergarten through fifth grade. At recent meetings, parent speakers have strongly advocated for this, claiming there are children from out of town improperly attending Greenwich schools, and the board approved an allocation of $25,000 to do it over the summer. Parents will now be asked to bring information proving their residency to the district’s central office in the Havemeyer Building on Greenwich Avenue so this will be able to be completed by Oct. 1.

“I think we need to do this right now and remove it from the ‘concern list’ of everybody,” Mr. Anderson said.

The specific time frame for when information needs to be brought in has not been finalized yet. The $25,000 cost will pay for two part-time clerical workers to be added to district staff to alert parents and go through the information. The board approved this by a 6-1 vote with Ms. Dayton making the lone vote in opposition because she felt it was only necessary to do the verification for grades three through five since verification had recently been done under the existing process on first and second graders.

Public outcry

The actual discussion of the options was preceded by a lengthy public hearing where the board was urged repeatedly to reject any plan that would involve forced redistricting. Representatives from each of the school’s PTAs spoke, talking about the damage redistricting would do to their school communities and telling the board that any plan that would move students should be done voluntarily with the parents making the decision. Additionally, parents asked that consideration of the space utilization issue be done separately from the racial balance mandate response.

There were also repeated calls for the school district to push forward with a legal challenge to the racial balance mandate, both from the PTAs and from parents in the crowd. Strong statements from the speakers urging the board to fight the mandate were greeted with enthusiastic applause.

“I’m not sure the board understands what its mandate is,” Karen Kowalski said Thursday night to the board. “We are the people the board represents. We are your constituents. We have spoken and the voices of all these people need to be heard. I understand that there are political beings above you that you report to but at the end of the day you report to us and we report to our children. Our children are the most important people in this town and I think the board has forgotten that. Our children demand that we take the action that needs to happen. We need to stay in our schools… Your mandate is clear. Fight. You have the support of all of us.”

Mike Joseph later added, even more directly, “Are you going to lead by example and file a lawsuit and use the methods available to you to stand up for the civil rights of everybody here? I guarantee you that if you don’t, we will.”

Ms. Moriarty noted “all the emotion spent” over the last few weeks about the issue and pledged to parents that the board was listening. She noted that, as evidenced by the decisions made that night, the board didn’t like the options the parents were fighting against either.

“We want to be transparent and we truly appreciate all the time, energy and thought that the public has put into this issue,” Ms. Moriarty said. “These are important issues for the town of Greenwich and important issues for our kids. We are all in this for the kids… We can work together to work through these issues. Ultimately, will we all agree? I doubt that, since we rarely agree on anything with 100% unanimity, but I think that if we all respect each other and the process and understand and listen we can hopefully have a greater understanding at the end of the day about what we’re deciding and why.”

 

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