School board examines new racial balance plan

As an unofficial deadline of October looms for the Board of Education to have a solution to present to the state regarding racial imbalance, a clear path forward did not present itself at the first meeting of the new school year.

A new proposal from Superintendent of Schools William McKersie that emphasizes voluntary school choice and classroom innovation when it comes to personalizing learning was officially put forward at the Aug. 29 meeting, but, while it got a public endorsement from school administrators, there was not a clear sense the board was sold on it. This came as two board members, Peter Sherr and Peter von Braun, unveiled an idea of their own, claiming that the state does not have to follow the state’s racial balance mandate because the schools in question are magnet schools and therefore exempt.

However, that idea was not met with support from their colleagues either, leaving the board with more questions to consider before the next meeting on Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. at Greenwich High School. This was just the first of several meetings that will take place in the coming weeks to come up with a plan to address racial imbalances in student populations at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools.

Because the number of minority students at those schools far exceeds the number of white students, the state has declared the schools to be in imbalance and has mandated Greenwich come up with a solution or face still unknown consequences. Discussions of various options have been before the board since September 2012 and now a decision is slated to be made at the end of October. The district has linked together this with an effort to deal with facility usage because data has found that most of the school buildings are either overcrowded or underutilized.

At the Aug. 29 meeting, Dr. McKersie officially put forward a plan that was first discussed in late July. In this fleshed out version of the proposal, North Street and Parkway schools, which have underutilized buildings, will be made into partial magnets with programs (undetermined right now) for voluntary movement of students within the districts.

Existing magnet programs would then be “reviewed and revised” and the overcrowded New Lebanon would be expanded. This plan also calls for Western Middle School to be “considered” as an International Baccalaureate magnet school, and there would be changes in how the areas sending students to the three middle schools are drawn. This would include a potential change for Parkway, which currently sends kids to both Western and Central Middle schools.

“We have listened to the community and listened to the board,” Dr. McKersie said. “Innovation and choice have been at the heart of the district for a long time. It’s like mom and apple pie for Greenwich. We as an administration have come to the unanimous conclusion that for any problem in Greenwich we have to come at it from the standpoint of innovation and choice. How do we foster and support much more innovation? And how do we offer choice, not just in choosing schools but in how our professionals can make the best decisions when it comes to their students and learning.”

Angela Schmidt, principal of North Mianus School and president of the Greenwich Organization of School Administrators, led a contingent of school principals to unanimously endorse Dr. McKersie’s plan.

“We fully agree that in order to prepare our students for the college experiences and career opportunities of tomorrow, we must transform traditional learning,” Ms. Schmidt said. “As stated under the strategic focus section of this proposal, we believe that the transformation of teaching and learning in the Greenwich Public Schools must include innovation. We are committed to the collaborative effort across our schools that will be necessary in the fostering of new ideas that will inspire our students and teachers and personalize learning for all.”

The board’s goal has been for a decision to be made by the end of next month, but the district is not facing a locked in timeline. The October time for a decision had been set so that whatever plan is approved be part of the planning of the 2014-15 school budget, which begins this fall. But board Chairman Leslie Moriarty has insisted extra time will be granted if needed. A survey is ongoing to determine what enticements Greenwich parents are looking for to put their children in magnet programs, and focus groups are to begin this week, so this could potentially go beyond the original timeframe.

“We want to get this right,” Ms. Moriarty said, insisting there was no predetermined outcome that the board was working toward. “We want to adopt a plan that addresses achievement as well as our operational needs.”

At the meeting, though, Mr. Sherr and Mr. von Braun said they believed this was all unnecessary because the schools were exempt and that an alternate plan that strengthens magnet programs at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon should be pursued without a focus on racial balance.

“We need to determine quickly if the unique school option will work,” Mr. von Braun said. “If it will work we can take racial balance off the table and don’t have to try to devise programs to deal with it.”

Board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill did not share their view, however, after she said she talked to the state and that she was told it was “not a slam dunk.”

“What we have now are partial magnets where we have seats from outside the area to come in,” Ms. O’Neill said. “A magnet, as the state defines it, is when you have 100% choice for every seat in that school. Our magnet schools do not qualify under the state’s definition.”

The issue could come to a head whether or not the board takes it to the state because of parental involvement.

Ben Bianco, an attorney and district parent, sent a letter to the state last week sharing Mr. Sherr and Mr. von Braun’s contention that the town does not have to comply because the schools are “unique schools.” Last week he told the Post he considered this a “straightforward” interpretation of the law that he believed would hold up in court. Mr. Bianco told the Post that he had not yet received a response from the state but he had not expected one quickly.

Mr. Bianco was one of several speakers at last week’s meeting expressing skepticism with the current process, which they said was taking attention away from student achievement and needed more parental involvement.

“I would implore the board to either endorse my letter or simply write a very similar letter to the state asking them to withdraw their demand that you file a plan,” Mr. Bianco told the board. “I don’t believe you have to [file a plan]. The black letter of the regulations say that you don’t. You have to report that they’re unique schools. That’s all you have to do. You don’t have to balance them.”

Mr. Bianco said that this would then allow the board “to fix the real problem,” which he said was space utilization in the district. He said if the board then wanted to adjust for racial balance it could, but under the town’s terms and not the state’s.

“The state runs the state, Greenwich runs Greenwich,” Mr. Bianco said. “They do not have the authority to demand you balance those schools. Let’s do what the Greenwich residents want and what the Greenwich parents want, not what the state wants.”

In an email to the Post, Ms. Moriarty said the constitutionality of the racial balance mandate and the application of the law is still being considered.

“The issue of the legal challenge has been researched, raising some questions, such as standing, which create some concerns, and that this issue needs to be more fully vetted with the board’s attorney and within the context of other alternatives,” Ms. Moriarty said, adding that this and the unique school question would be discussed at the next meeting.

 

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