September deadline on racial balance lifted, McKersie says state wants focus on academic performance

According to Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, the immediate pressure is off Greenwich to deal with racial imbalance at two elementary schools, which will better assist the district in actually finding a solution.

By state standards, Greenwich has two schools in racial imbalance, Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon School, where there are too many minority students in comparison to white students. The state has also determined that Western Middle School, where students from those two elementary schools are sent, is in “pending imbalance” as is Old Greenwich School, although that is where there are too few minority students.

Initially the town faced a Sept. 14 deadline to present a revised action plan to the state for how to deal with this issue since the state had determined earlier this summer that the current plan of using magnet schools to attract students to New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue to correct the balance wasn’t working. However, at last week’s Board of Education meeting, Dr. McKersie said he had spoken with the state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor and that there had been “major progress” made over the summer.

“We talked this summer about a number of the priorities Greenwich has, including achievement and within that the racial balance issue,” Dr. McKersie said. “Our discussion led to the commissioner saying, ‘We need to give you more running room. We need to give you more space. So the September deadline for a report will be moved and the October required update by myself to the state Board of Education has been moved. Instead, I will meet with the commissioner to talk about what may be the timeline.”

Dr. McKersie said this was not a case where Greenwich was receiving any special treatment. Instead this was something in Mr. Pryor’s discretion based on cases of racial imbalance in other districts in the state and the belief that it was intertwined, and not separate from, issues of academic achievement. Dr. McKersie stressed to the board, and the audience watching the meeting, that this was a positive development since it allowed the town more time to reach a decision on a course of action without anything being imposed from the state level.

“There are a couple of things that are very clear, and this has to be repeated and repeated and repeated,” Dr. McKersie said. “We are in the driver’s seat. The state is not going to sweep in and force us to redistrict. They’re not going to force us to bus. They’re not going to force a solution on us… Everyone on the state level working on this says, ‘Let’s focus on achievement first. The law does not speak about achievement. Let’s let these districts come up with a solution.’”

He added that it was Mr. Pryor’s instruction, and one he totally agreed with, that this be a part of the flow of Greenwich’s work on student achievement and “not take it over.”

Board member Steven Anderson quickly indicated his support for this approach, calling it “the exact right one to take.”

“This needs to be focused on student achievement, not on racial composition,” Mr. Anderson said. “As a parent whose children have gone through Title I elementary schools and happily so, I know there is a tremendous amount of pride in every school, whether you are Title I or racially balanced. Everybody loves, and I think justifiably so, their neighborhood school and at the end of the day what they care about is how their individual child is being educated. If they feel that’s happening in a good manner with proper growth, there shouldn’t be a reason to move them just to satisfy a state goal.”

Despite the immediate pressure being taken off, the district will have to take action and Dr. McKersie said that timeline will be established after a meeting later this month with Mr. Pryor. He said he would be updating the board and the public at future Board of Education meetings and said any decisions would be based on data like enrollment and that, after his meeting with the commissioner, the district would begin outreach to existing structures to get “ideas and input on different solutions” including the PTAs and the teachers union.

Board member Peter Sherr wondered about the timing, though, asking whether something would have to be voted on before the district begins considering the 2013-14 school budget, which has to be approved in December. Dr. McKersie said there might be “initial steps” going into this coming budget development but indicated larger steps, when they are determined, could be a part of future budgets.

But by that timing, though, it puts the board on a timeline already if there are going to be any changes for the next school year.

“This probably means we’re going to have to have an idea or a pretty strong idea of how we’re going to do that because we have to ratify our budget in December,” Mr. Sherr said. “We have to have a sense of how big the dollars are going to be.”

While the magnet approach has so far not proven to be effective, Dr. McKersie, in an interview with the Post last month, said he supported the idea of magnet schools in the district and that he would be in favor of enhancing the programs, rather than ending them. That aspect of the response did not come up for discussion at last week’s meeting though.

Board Chairman Leslie Moriarty said she wanted to see the district address the issue in coordination with other initiatives on achievement. She added there would also be community input on the issue before any decisions are made. Ms. Moriarty said all the data being collected in this matter would soon be posted on its own page on the district’s website at Greenwichschools.org.

“There needs to be a holistic approach to addressing our multiple goals,” Ms. Moriarty said. “I want to thank the administration for all their hard work on this because we didn’t want to have to make a decision in isolation without considering all the issues we have in front of us.”

Speaking on the timing of it, Ms. Moriarty said, “My hope is we don’t let this drag on for a long period of time and that we do address it this fall and early winter. We need to get an idea of the direction we’re going in if not necessarily the final direction. Having that done by the budget cycle would be ideal.”

 

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