Magnet schools are new balance option

classroomThe Board of Education is considering a new option, but no clear solution is yet at hand to address the twin issues of facility utilization and state-mandated racial balance.

At a special meeting on Tuesday night, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie officially added a new option for consideration, one that would turn North Street School and Parkway School into partial magnet schools for the 2014-15 school year. Both of those schools are under capacity in student population, and under this plan while any child in their neighborhood zones would be able to attend, the open spots would be available to students anywhere else in the district.

Under state law, both Hamilton Avenue School and New Lebanon School, which are already magnet schools, are considered to be out of racial balance due to the large number of minority students. Greenwich is tasked with coming up with a rebalancing solution to present to the state while, at the same time, dealing with the district problem of some elementary schools being overcrowded and others underused. Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty said again on Tuesday that it made sense to approach both problems at the same time because a solution for one could impact the other.

The board is currently circling its Oct. 10 meeting date for a vote on a solution. That means an option would have to be identified by September so it could be publicly discussed first. But Ms. Moriarty promised that date is not set in stone and that the board would do what worked best for the town.

“Given the time it will take to develop the implementation details, establish magnet application and lottery processes if so determined as well as integration of any proposed plan into the 2014-15 budget, it’s advantageous for us to try and make this timetable,” Ms. Moriarty. “However, as I said before, if the board believes it needs more time and information before finalizing a plan, the board will modify that schedule.”

This new option comes after several meetings in May and June where parents strongly opposed any consideration of forced redistricting. Most redistricting plans are now officially off the table for consideration by the Board of Education and Dr. McKersie said this plan was designed to create flexibility to maximize attendance in schools throughout the district and was “almost entirely based around choice and voluntary movement and not based, in any significant way at this point on redistricting or forcing students to go to new schools.”

This would be accompanied by “sustained and strengthened” efforts to close achievement gaps at New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue.

“We can’t come to you tonight as an administration, though, and say that we know that this is the answer to meet the numeric requirements of the state racial balance issue,” Dr. McKersie said. “We are saying that our best hope, our best promise for meeting the needs of the community and meeting the best practices in education is to take the approach of creating two new partial magnets that would still be neighborhood schools to round out our existing magnets on the western side of town.”

Questions remain unanswered, though. There was visible reluctance from some board members to embrace the new option of partial magnet schools. Board members Nancy Kail and Jennifer Dayton both asked why the program would be at two new partial magnet schools and not at one with an option to expand to a second one later. Dr. McKersie said that “there is not a magic number in two” but there would be value in creating “good energy and synergy across the two sites” while ensuring that capacity issues are dealt with.

Others wondered what impact this plan would have on the problem of racial balance, especially with the now added cost of busing students to new magnet schools out of their neighborhoods. Board member Adriana Ospina said she was concerned that having two new magnet schools would “spread resources too thin.”

Board member Peter von Braun said thorough market research had to be done to make sure that the district knew what would entice parents to voluntarily move their kids in quantities that would adequately deal with the issues of balance and utilization.

“If you find 95% of the minorities want to stay in their neighborhood school then an attempt to balance things out in those two schools is doomed,” Mr. von Braun said. “We ought to get that done as quickly as possible.”

Dr. McKersie said proposals had been submitted from marketing firms to do research about what would make a successful magnet school in the Greenwich community and that they would focus on Mr. von Braun’s concerns.

“That exact question is at the center of this process,” Dr. McKersie said.

Dr. McKersie pledged no decisions would be made “until we have that critical market research back.”

Board member Peter Sherr wondered, as he had in the past, about the accuracy of data showing overcrowding throughout the district, not just at New Lebanon School, which has been identified as the most pressing need to be addressed in facility utilization. He said he was worried the board was being pushed into a timeline for a decision before all the information was available and all options thoroughly considered.

“None of us like the fact that the state is telling us to tear apart our school district and redesign it based on achieving hard racial quotas,” Mr. Sherr said. He later added that he didn’t want the board “to be a slave to the state” on a timeline for having to create a solution, especially because of how complex they will be.

More information will be discussed at the Aug. 29 Board of Education meeting at Greenwich High School where Dr. McKersie said findings from the working group that includes himself, district cabinet members and principals will be able to make a more formal presentation on possible options.

One option for dealing with racial balance that remains on the table is taking up a legal challenge to the law on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional. Many parents have advocated this at public meetings but no decisions have been made. Ms. Moriarty said it was being explored on a parallel track with the other options and that the board was meeting with counsel about it. Further discussion will take place in board executive sessions for now, due to legal advice.

No public comment was taken at Tuesday’s meeting, but there will be opportunities for the public to speak at the Aug. 29 meeting and again on Sept. 12 and 26 before the Oct. 10 meeting, which would also have a public hearing. Due to the expected response, all of those meetings will be at Greenwich High School, except for Oct. 10, which will be at Central Middle School.


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