FAIRFIELD — “Redistricting is on the table” in a new proposed plan for addressing a racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary School.
On Tuesday evening, Interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy presented an updated version of the district’s plan to bring the student population at McKinley Elementary School closer in line with the demographics of the district as a whole.
Currently, 56 percent of McKinley students are classified as minority, compared to 26 percent of students in the district overall.
In May, representatives from the district met with the state’s Board of Education, which directed Fairfield to update its plan for addressing the imbalance by September 8.
The updated plan includes five parts: outreach to the community, equity workshops for school staff, a school climate review, redistricting of the elementary schools and considering creating an interdistrict magnet school.
The plan calls for the superintendent to present a proposal for redistricting to a committee of the Board of Education in May 2023. The committee would take the proposal to the full board in June 2023, and the full board is expected to vote on the plan in October. The redistricting would take effect in August 2024.
Tracy told the Fairfield Board of Education that steps would need to be taken regardless of the racial balance to address the uneven distribution of students across the district’s 11 elementary schools. Currently, five of the district’s schools are under 75 percent capacity, and five are over 85 percent capacity. Overall, the district is projected to have 1,000 fewer students enrolled this fall than seats available.
“This is an issue in my opinion that the district is going to have to face up to in the next few years, regardless and aside from the racial balance issues,” said Tracy. “How do we make the most efficient use of our facilities? How do we distribute the population of youngsters in a responsible way?”
Tracy said that although the percentage of minority students in Fairfield has increased from 17.5 percent to over 25 percent in the last 12 years, housing patterns have meant that minority students are concentrated in certain schools like McKinley.
The district will likely need to bring in consultants to decide on the best way to redistrict, said Tracy, and the new superintendent may want to present the board with several plans to review. Tracy said he was not sure how hiring consultants would impact the district budget.
According to board member Nick Aysseh, the district was also considering “pocket districting” within the McKinley zone — meaning that children living in any new housing developments in that area would be sent to a school other than McKinley.
Previous attempts to reconfigure the district’s student demographics by creating a system for parents to “opt in” or “opt out” of McKinley, by increasing the district’s Open Choice program, and by allowing students in the McKinley district to enroll in preschool at two other Fairfield schools and later attend those schools, did little to change the racial imbalance.
Aysseh said the board had also met with an attorney to ask if there was a way they could adopt a plan that wasn’t in line with state statute.
“Basically at the end of the day, the answer is no,” Aysseh said.
According to Aysseh, they were told by the attorney that the state Board of Education could impose a financial penalty on the town for not complying with state statute regarding racial imbalance. Given the size of the racial imbalance in the district, he said, the attorney thought it was unlikely that the outcome would be in the board’s favor.
“We would be spending a lot of the town’s money for something that we really couldn’t win,” Aysseh said.
“This is going to impact everyone”
Board member Jessica Gerber pointed out that redistricting of the elementary schools would also affect the middle and high schools in the district.
“It’s no secret that the topic of redistricting is certainly one that’s going to engender a tremendous amount of distress and questions,” she said. “This is going to impact everyone in our town.”
Gerber said that McKinley provides services that many students rely on, such as the afterschool program run by the Boys and Girls Club. She questioned the additional cost of having to provide these services at other schools.
Board member Carol Guernsey asked about the cost of redistributing across the school system services currently now offered only at McKinley.
Board member Jeff Peterson said he felt the district needed to start looking for shortcomings in things like instruction, academic support and school climate much earlier than the plan calls for. He said that if the district waits until February to review the climate, the district won’t be able to implement the recommendations until the following budget cycle.
Tracy also proposed a timeline for the district to consider creating an intra-district magnet school, either with an International Baccalaureate Program or a Dual Language Program. He said that the idea had been encouraged by the state Board of Education.
Tracy said that while a magnet school would not do much to address the racial imbalance, it would have other positive effects.
“I do think it offers an opportunity for us to create new programs, to make them attractive to families, to get families to think about having their children attend a school that they would not otherwise attend in their neighborhood,” said Tracy.
Tracy suggested a two-year planning process for the magnet, with the school opening for enrollment in December 2024, and if this generated enough interest, having the first class enroll in August 2025.
But several board members expressed doubts about the district’s ability to implement an intra-district magnet school. Members also questioned whether it would be possible for the district to handle the creation of a magnet program and to redistrict at the same time. Others questioned the timing.
“We’re going to move kids August 2024 … and then say, well, hey do you want to move again in 25-26? We’re intentionally building in a double transition. Which we know educationally is not good for kids,” said Jacobsen.
Board Chair Christine Vitale said that an intra-district magnet school might prevent the district from sliding backward into racial imbalance if housing patterns shifted after the redistricting took place.
Aysseh added that an intra district magnet could also provide other advantages for students, for instance, if one or two schools offered dual-language instruction.
“There are areas that we’re lacking in the district that are outside of racial imbalance, which include servicing our non-English speaking students,” he said.
“We need to dig deep”
The plan also includes equity training workshops for district administrators and staff, which would take place during winter and spring 2023. Tracy said this proposal was sparked by a discussion with the state Board of Education that emphasized the need to ensure that all schools in the district were meeting the needs of the students.
“In the District Improvement Plan, it addresses the notion that we have subgroups in Fairfield public schools that have not been receiving the same education proficiencies and opportunities that our white and asian students have. And so we need to dig deep into our programming, into our understanding, into our own notions to be able to provide the opportunities,” Digna Marte, the district’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, told the board.
Board members emphasized that they would involve members of the public through information sessions, both in person and virtual, set to be held this fall.
Aysseh, chair of the facilities committee, reiterated that, from a facilities perspective, changes needed to be made regardless of the racial imbalance numbers.
“…I’m thinking of placing the kids in the place in a manner where they can get the best educational value. Having racial imbalance solved in that process is a wonderful thing if we can do it, and I think that’s what our goal is here,” he said.
The board is expected to vote on the proposed plan on August 30.