FAIRFIELD — Kristina Nartomicz, a parent of two six-year-olds at Osborn Hill Elementary, said that walking to school with her children is a major way that she gets to know other families in her neighborhood.
“In a 10-minute walk from home to school … we may see and engage with up to 10 other families,” Nartomicz told Board of Education members during a community conversation on Thursday. The informal talks and chats continue, she said, while waiting outside in the morning for the school doors to open or at pick-up time.
“We share greetings, smiles, chats, well-wishes for a great day, afternoon playground dates, concern when ill, weekend holiday travel plans and, in general, bond, and have developed these walker communities within the school community,” she added.
With the school board preparing to hire a consultant to look at potential redistricting scenarios, a number of parents like Nartomicz appeared before the board asking that the consultant look for ways that children who currently walk to school can continue to do so, rather than be placed on buses to attend schools farther away.
Board of Education members have highlighted two major reasons for the redistricting. The first is the need to comply with the State Board of Education’s directive to address the racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary. According to recent numbers, the student population of McKinley is 55 percent minority, while the district’s K-5 population as a whole is 26 percent minority students.
The second reason, board members have said, is the difference in utilization rates at the school buildings. Five of the district’s elementary schools are below 80 percent of their capacity, and two are above 90 percent of their capacity — the board goal is 85 percent for all buildings.
Many of the parents who came out strongly in favor of walking are, like Nartomicz, former New York City residents, some of whom have moved to Fairfield only in the last few years.
Megan Newman, parent of a kindergartener at Jennings Elementary School, echoed Nartomicz’s comments. She said she’d moved to Fairfield from New York a year ago, and that they’d chosen their home because of its proximity to the school.
“We have met so many amazing people in our school community from walking to and from school,” said Newman.
KateLynn Helgevold, a former New York City resident who walks to school with her five-year-old, said that the Board of Education needed to consider the potential impacts of redistricting on Fairfield’s real estate market.
“In the scenarios where schools are shut down and/or walkability to schools is compromised, we should plan for the case in which the values of homes dip, and housing prices have a ripple effect,” said Helgevold. She added that even the possibility of overcrowding in schools could change the market, which could mean a loss of property tax revenue.
Helgevold said that when she was moving from New York, the most important criteria she looked for in a home was the quality of the local schools, and the proximity to the school building.
“I did a considerable mark-up for the luxury of walking my kid to Jennings and creating those core memories, especially at this age. And I’d do it again,” said Helgevold. “And people in Fairfield are willing to pay a premium both tax dollars and real estate dollars for proximity to their schools.”
Parents also brought up the health benefits for students of walking to school.
“Like many Americans, I have struggled with obesity and metabolic issues since I was a kid,” said Danielle Gelfand. “Walking, especially as someone who has lived in New York City for years, has helped keep me healthy.”
Gelfand, parent of a kindergartener at Sherman Elementary, said part of the attraction of moving to Fairfield for her was the neighborhood communities. She said that absent the ability to walk to school with her child, she worried about how, in a family of two working parents, they would be able to interact with the school community.
Parent Amanda Campbell added that there were many studies that showed the benefits of walking, and referenced a review recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association about the effects of exercise on children’s mental health.
“The facts are there, the data is there. And I shared that to say it should not even be a question in the charge to the consultants that this is something we should preserve,” she said.
Board member Christine Vitale said she hoped the Board would be able to create a scenario where walkers could continue being able to walk to school. She said this could save the district transportation costs.
“Busing is an extra challenge this year with the bus driver shortage,” said Vitale.
On Wednesday, the board reviewed and modified the guidance it will give to the consultants that will look at potential redistricting options. A new draft of the guidance asks the consultants to provide “the number of walkers impacted by each scenario, number of current bussers who would become walkers, and a net number of walkers impacted.”
Parents also expressed other concerns. Andy Cook, whose son bikes to school, said that redistricting him to a school further away would “certainly be diminishing” his experience regarding how he gets to school. But he said his bigger concern was that a child might be redistricted to a “lower-performing” school and see a decrease in the child’s quality of education.
“What would the board say to folks who purchased homes in part due to the elementary school district that they’re in, and in some cases, may be facing a redistricting to a lower performing school, as measured by Smarter Balanced Proficiency?” asked Cook, referring to the standardized state tests given to elementary school students.
Board member Jessica Gerber pushed back against this idea. She said that Fairfield has excellent elementary schools across the board, and that moving from one to another would not have a detrimental effect on the quality of education a child receives.
“I would hesitate to say that a child’s educational experience would be negatively impacted by the quality of the school or that home values would change. I just don’t see it that way,” she said.
“In a town like Fairfield I think we have really 11 wonderful schools that all have a lot of good things about them.”
Other parents said they were concerned about the possibility of overcrowding if one of the elementary schools was shut down — an option that the Board is asking the consultants to look at.
“More Manhattanites want to move to Connecticut, I know this for certain,” said parent Alex Augusta, who moved to Connecticut from New York two years ago. “Nobody wants to put their kid in an overcrowded school.”
But Board member Jeff Peterson said that some of the schools were already overcrowded.
“One of the things that I’ve been trying to think about all the time with this redistricting is, how do we harmonize experiences across the schools?” he asked.
Board members Vitale and Gerber said they both believed that the Board was inclined to keep all of the elementary schools open, based on information about enrollment, capacity and specialized programming.
“I have always been very vocal saying that I don’t think we are able to close any of our elementary schools. Based on the numbers, based on our past history I’ve always been very leery of that,” said Gerber.
Gerber said she felt that having the consultants look at the potential to close a school and conclude that it was not a good idea would be “really helpful and powerful” when going before the other town Boards.
The new draft of the guidance also asks consultants to consider new locations for the Early Childhood Center, grade level changes to the middle schools and the impact of grandfathering students in 5th grade, 8th grade and 10th-12th grade so that they could continue at their current schools.
The board will vote on the new guidance for the consultants at a meeting on Tuesday, Jan 10.