FAIRFIELD – Facing an October 2023 deadline to approve a plan to address a racial imbalance in the town’s public schools, members of the Fairfield Board of Education offered possible solutions, talked with parents, and discussed potential school closures, student transfers and a rushed timeline.
Recent counts show that students of color made up nearly 56 percent of the student body at McKinley Elementary School student body, compared to 26 percent in the district overall – that’s more of a disparity than the state allows within individual public school districts.
At its Dec. 13 meeting, members of the Fairfield Board of Education proposed discussed possible solutions for consultants Milone and MacBroom to investigate, including the contentious idea of closing one of the 11 elementary schools in the district.
Board member Jeff Peterson said he would love to have three years to map out and execute a plan, but said they were working against a deadline set by the state Board of Education.
“I have said explicitly that I had hoped that we would have much more time to deal with this because there’s a facilities component, there’s a finance component to this,” said Peterson.
“We don’t have that time currently,” siad Peterson.
Board Vice Chair Nick Aysseh, said he was unsure if shutting down an elementary school would be the best solution, but said he would like to look into it so the board could either continue the conversation, or take the idea off the table.
In September, finance committee members discussed closing Dwight Elementary School as a part of a redistricting plan – a conversation met with protests from parents at community events and board meetings.
Members of the Board of Education tried to clarify that Dwight, the elementary school in the district with the lowest projected use of classroom space, was only a hypothetical example, but those assurances did little to calm community opposition to a potential closure, with residents attending the Dec. 13 meeting in matching shirts that read, “Save Dwight.”
Aysseh said he was not specifically referring to Dwight when he suggested a possible closure, but said the board needed to see “that data” to move forward.
Board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly added that the idea of turning Dwight into a middle school had been floating around the town, so whether or not it was feasible, she wanted to include that in the charge. Peterson said he’d considered the option as well, but questioned whether the board had enough time to act on the idea.
“We are not going to have a lot of time to loop in other town bodies to find funding for construction projects and much less build anything new, at least not in this timeframe,” Peterson said. “I still think that may be a good idea for the more distant future, but I don’t know that we can consider things that are going to require the approval of large sums of money by other town bodies at this point in our planning.”
Board members also requested that consultants consider grandfathering current students – both elementary and high school – into redistricting plans.
“I would not like to see students that have already started at one high school to then be moved to another high school,” member Carol Guernsey said.
Member Christine Vitale said she was unsure about grandfathering high school student, but made a case for elementary students as she was “sensitive to our youngest learners.”
“I would also be interested in looking at grandfathering. I don’t necessarily know what grades,” Vitale said. “I definitely would not want to pull fifth grade out of an elementary school.”
At the Dec. 15 meeting, parents questioned school closures and student transfers, particularly for students coping with anxiety or who walked to school. They presented their own ideas.
Resident David Krasnoff acknowledged that time was limited, but suggested looking at the “smallest impact” in the meantime to appease the state. For example, he said, the board could choose one street of students and move them to another school.
“I just think it’s a smart way to go about it,” Krasnoff said. “To rush and come up with a plan because you send info to [consultants] and they tell you this is the best plan – I don’t know if that’s the best way to go about this.”
Peterson said he understood Krasnoff’s point, but rebutted the idea of redistricting students in small groups for the short term. He said that in 1981, his wife was one of seven students moved to a different school, and said she had a horrible experience.
“From the beginning of this process, I’ve been opposed to the idea of what are called ‘pocket districts’ that slice off the street here and move them there for that exact reason,” Peterson said. “I think that this is a problem that we need to deal with on a town-wide basis.”
But Krasnoff said the public would have an easier time swallowing a plan that affected 100 students rather than 2,000 students.
Parent Canda Pagnozzi told board members that she attended the meeting to represent her daughter and all other children who suffered from mental health issues, calling them the “COVID kids.”
“They’ve experienced an educational journey none of us will ever understand,” Pagnozzi said. “They’re really just getting settled into their school life without restrictions. Is it really time to once again rip them from the comfort of their now routine?”
Pagnozzi said her seven-year-old daughter developed crippling anxiety, and the only thing keeping it at bay was the comfort and consistency of routine. She explained that without grandfathering existing students, the proposed redistricting would derail significant strides her family made to work through her daughter’s anxiety.
“The thought of even beginning to tell her that she will need to start a school year in a different school is enough to bring me to tears,” Pagnozzi said. “Tears for her and all of these children.”
Numerous parents also made a case for students who walk to school. Parent Lori Algar said she wanted a stricter policy to protect elementary school children who were considered walkers, and highlighted the benefits of walking to school.
“According to Connecticut Childhood Obesity Report in 2018, one-third of Connecticut’s youth are overweight or obese. A risk factor for obesity is physical inactivity,” Algar said. “Having a child sit on a bus rather than walk or bike just to and from school supports physical inactivity.”
Algar said exercise had a positive impact on anxiety, depression and cognitive function. She said it was her understanding that because there was no policy to protect walkers from redistricting, it was still a possibility.
Aysseh agreed that there was no existing policy regarding students who walked to school, and said transferring them was always a possibility. And that while the board would agree that they don’t want to move anyone who could otherwise walk to school, he said they couldn’t make any guarantees.
Superintendent Michael Testani reminded parents that board members had to have these debates in public, and said they had to discuss all possibilities to decide what was best for Fairfield.
“I think it’s important just to understand that they are going to talk about things that may be near and dear to your heart, that may be cringe, that bring high levels of anxiety – not that it’s not there already,” Testani said. “But it’s only part of a process to eliminate possibilities and really get to what will work in order to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.”
Members said that before they vote on a charge for consultants on Jan. 10, they would have another brainstorming session on Jan. 4 and a similar meeting for parents on Jan. 5. In the meantime, they said, the board website had documents and plans dating back to 2007 – when McKinley first became racially imbalanced – for parents to review.