School board passes racial balance plan

After years of work, a vote by the Board of Education on Tuesday night made it official. A racial balance plan has been submitted to the state.

Under the plan, which was done in response to the state finding both Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools to be racially imbalanced due to the heavy preponderance of minority students there, Greenwich is proposing to take several steps to improve the draw of the magnet programs at those schools. The magnet program at Hamilton Avenue is slated to be “enhanced” and additional space will be created at New Lebanon School. Closing the achievement gap at both schools is also being billed as a major priority as the attempt will be made to address the imbalance through the voluntary transfer of students.

The framework of this plan has been in place for months, but Tuesday’s vote made it official. Board Vice Chairman Jennifer Dayton called it a “difficult discussion” but praised the board and district administration for the “extensive effort” put in it.

“Throughout this project the board maintained its focus on academic achievement for all students as its most important priority,” Ms. Dayton said. She said she felt the plan represented the community’s view and praised several other steps in it including loosening magnet rules, providing transportation, and making Western Middle School an International Baccalaureate (IB) magnet school.

Board of Education Chairman Barbara O’Neill was not present for the vote but is a supporter of the plan. The vote was not unanimous, though. Board member Peter Bernstein abstained from the final 6-0 approval, saying that he wanted to ensure the focus was on action in the plan. He recalled an appearance he made before the board as a parent speaker early in the process.

“One of the things I’ve been worried about is the timing, and that we continue to push things too far into the future,” Mr. Bernstein said. “And here we are years after I got up and we still haven’t addressed the magnet theme at Hamilton Avenue. My concern is that we still have to work on the achievement of all students and I don’t want to sit here and think we’re going to be here two or three years from now and still haven’t done any action.”

Magnet programs have been used to try and create a solution to the balance issue since Greenwich was first in violation. However, sufficient space to draw in students from outside the neighborhood catch area of New Lebanon does not exist, and the magnet program at Hamilton Avenue has been soundly criticized by parents for not being what was promised after several budget cuts.

By taking the vote, the plan is now formally submitted to Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor, leaving the ball in the state’s court. There was no discussion about what the exact next steps will be, but likely Superintendent of Schools William McKersie and board members will be discussing the plan with the state in the near future to receive feedback. The board will now push forward with plans to expand New Lebanon through the town’s budget process, and Mr. Bernstein urged his colleagues and Dr. McKersie to take the approval as a “call to arms” to improve the magnet program.

Dr. McKersie said he understood and took the concerns seriously but noted that Hamilton Avenue was already undergoing the “transformative effects” of the district’s new digital learning program. He said with such a major investment of “time, talent and treasure” there are efforts underway.

This vote comes after last year’s heated discussion about possible alternatives including potential redistricting and busing plans, which were quickly taken off the table due to intense public reaction, as well as turning North Street School into an open school of choice to free up space at New Lebanon. Many parents demanded Greenwich challenge the racial balance mandate in court though there was never any legal finding from the town or the board’s attorney that it had the standing to do so.

Because of that, board member Peter Sherr said he was “holding his nose” as he voted in favor of it, saying the process took too much time and attention away from a focus on improving academic performance.

“It’s important that the community communicate in a unified voice to the state that this is a Greenwich plan and is the best plan they will get from Greenwich,” Mr. Sherr said. “The majority of the community has a different point of view [from the state’s]. We want to focus on student achievement instead of classifying children by racial category in 2014.”

Ultimately the vote was taken after little debate on Tuesday and less than 10 minutes of discussion at what was the final board meeting of the 2013-14 school year. However, it was not the only business taken care of before the Board of Education went on summer vacation. Dr. McKersie unanimously received a new-three year contract, taking him through June 30, 2017.

Dr. McKersie had a year left on his existing deal, which was signed when he took over the district in 2012, but the new contract shows a fresh commitment from both sides. After several years of upheaval, including the past three full-time superintendents of schools lasting three years or less, the board said at the time of his hiring they wanted Dr. McKersie for the long term. Now, they have him under contract for at least three more years.

In a statement put out by the district, Ms. O’Neill said. “We believe that consistency of leadership will translate into improved academic success for our students. This will be the first time in 12 years that a superintendent has committed to stay beyond the initial three-year contract. We are gratified that we have this opportunity to stay the course with Dr. McKersie.”

After the unanimous vote was taken, Dr. McKersie said, “I am humbled by the support from the Board of Education to extend my service as superintendent of the Greenwich Public Schools. In the last two years that I have lived and worked in Greenwich, I have become deeply invested in the schools and in the community. My commitment is to do all I can to have Greenwich known nationally as a school system that accelerates learning for all students, provides robust artistic, musical, athletic and social programming, promotes civic dedication and service, and fosters in all staff and students an unwavering focus on compassion and caring.”

More information on Dr. McKersie’s new contract can be found here

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