Board OKs New Lebanon study

classroomHow Greenwich will respond to the state’s mandate to racially balance two of its elementary schools remains unclear, but the Board of Education did take steps last week to try to alleviate some overcrowding.

At a work session on Oct. 10, the board approved steps designed to address the packed classrooms at New Lebanon School, an issue for which parents have been demanding action for months. Originally a plan to deal with facility utilization in the district after data found several schools overcrowded and others underused was tied into the racial balance mandate to avoid one action impacting the other, but last week the issues were dealt with independently.

The board approved authorizing Superintendent of Schools William McKersie to conduct a feasibility study to assess what can be done, including a possible expansion of the New Lebanon School building. Short-term solutions for the immediate space crunch there will also be explored and presented to the board early in 2014 so steps can be taken before the 2014-15 school year begins. The longer term study will have to be included in the next budget, meaning work cannot begin until the new fiscal year, but the board approved $25,000 from the current budget to look at the short-term solution.

The board also approved a study to examine existing themes for the town’s magnet schools at New Lebanon, Hamilton Avenue and Julian Curtiss to see if they can be strengthened to try to improve academic achievement. Dr. McKersie will look at what’s being offered at those schools and make a recommendation to the board of potential changes in early 2014. This was approved as the board also formally turned Western Middle School into a partial magnet with an International Baccalaureate theme, meaning that middle school students outside the Western neighborhood zone may apply to be students there.

This will be the first magnet middle school in the district, and this formalizes a process set in motion years ago.

These actions leave the district’s response to the state’s balance mandate still to be addressed, and that is expected to happen at the board’s Oct. 24 meeting at Eastern Middle School.

The board had originally scheduled a vote for the Oct. 10 meeting, likely to consider a plan from Dr. McKersie that would attempt to deal with the balance issue by opening up at least one more magnet elementary school in town at either North Street School, Parkway School or both. But that vote was delayed in order to give more time to the question of whether the imbalanced schools, Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, were considered “unique schools” by the state.

Some parents, as well as board members Peter Sherr and Peter von Braun, have said that because those two schools are magnet schools, they qualified as unique schools and therefore would be exempt from the racial balance law. A letter was written to the state seeking clarification on the issue, but the response was not what those parents and board members were looking for.

In a letter that was sent to Ms. Moriarty and the board on Oct. 8, state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor said the schools did not meet that definition because they were not full magnet programs and instead drew the majority of their students from their neighborhood zones. Mr. Pryor said in the letter that interdistrict or intradistrict magnet schools did not have control over the racial composition of the student population and therefore couldn’t provide a remedy to the issue, which he feels Greenwich can do because those schools have only partial magnet programs.

Mr. Pryor’s letter is posted at the district’s website, Greenwichschools.org, and Ms. Moriarty said it would be reviewed by the board and district officials before the Oct. 24 meeting.

Parents who attended the Oct. 10 meeting rejected this interpretation, and Benjamin Bianco, an attorney and parent who has been a leading force in advocating for a unique school designation, said the commissioner had failed to justify his finding through legal precedent and was overstepping his authority.

“I’m actually very encouraged by the letter,” Mr. Bianco said during the public hearing. “It clearly shows that the commissioner does not have the legal authority to alter the plain meaning of the definition of unique schools. His letter is noticeably absent of a single legal citation. In the plain reading of the law, unique schools are defined as intra or interdistrict magnets, and we have four in this town, two of which have been cited for racial balance. Inter and intradistrict magnet schools are automatically unique schools and therefore don’t have to be balanced. … He did not at any place in that latter state he has any authority to alter the plain meaning of interdistrict magnet. Remember, this man is a Yale-educated lawyer. If he had that authority he would have said it, but he didn’t.”

Legal challenges to the law have not been ruled out but do not seem to be on the front burner of board discussions either. Mr. Bianco urged the board to remember that “you represent Greenwich and Greenwich has universally supported being strong with the state.”

While there was a comparatively smaller crowd at the meeting than at prior ones, several speakers urged Greenwich to fight the balance mandate. Parent Kevin Foley said that since parents “overwhelmingly prefer” neighborhood schools in Greenwich, the district should focus on developing a plan for New Lebanon overcrowding and submit that to the state for review.

Kim Blank, co-president of the North Street PTA, expressed skepticism about a magnet plan for the school and instead said the board should focus on strengthening the magnet programs at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon and opening all schools in the district with excess capacity to students from overcrowded buildings, not just North Street. She said parents were worried that a magnet program at North Street would solely be used to attract other students from outside the school’s neighborhood zone and not be designed to benefit students who are already there.

“While we have been open to the creation of a magnet program at North Street, we have several concerns about making North Street the sole new school of choice,” Ms. Blank said. “We worry that the district does not have a strong track record in creating effective magnet schools and hasn’t demonstrated the positive effect on student learning. We worry that our teachers and administrators are already being stretched with so many new initiatives, and we worry that we’re not all on the same page as to the purpose of adding magnet programs to North Street.”

This discussion came on the same night the Board of Education heard back about market research from Metis Associates about what parents would be looking for in a magnet program and what would convince them to move from a neighborhood school to a magnet school. With a 79.3% response rate from surveys, the firm found that close to three-quarters of those answering, which crossed racial and ethnic groups in town, preferred neighborhood schools. The survey also found frustration in the community with the district’s decision to pursue school choice as an option, with fears that it would cause some schools to receive more resources than others. But there was far more support for that option than for any forced redistricting.

 

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