WESTPORT – Board of Education members on Monday debated a timeline for school redistricting to address projected growth in student enrollment, with Republicans generally favoring an uptempo timeline that could be set in motion as soon as 2024 and Democrats a more deliberate approach.
At a Jan. 9 board meeting, Westport parents pushed back against concerns expressed by Republican board members that the $600,000 approval of two portable classrooms at Long Lots Elementary School was too expensive and too temporary of a fix for growing enrollment and student inequities.
Republican board member Robert Harrington pressed for a conversation about redistricting against the reluctance of Democratic board members and the superintendent to add it to the agenda during the budget season.
“Maybe the Democrats should just tell us when they want to discuss it and we will vote on that,” said Harrington at the Jan. 9 meeting.
In a phone call with CT Examiner on Tuesday, Harrington said the request for portable classrooms set the redistricting conversation in motion. And while he supported a May 2022 request for two portable classrooms at Coleytown Elementary School to address overcrowding, he said the November 2022 release of current and projected enrollment left him reconsidering the Long Lots request.
A report by SLAM Collaborative – an architecture firm with offices in nine states – showed a steady drop in enrollment at Saugatuck Elementary School, even as enrollment at Long Lots grew.
“It looked like we were being asked to add temporary or additional capacity through trailers or through portable classrooms, whilst at the same time on the other side of town, we had spare capacity in at least one, if not two, of our elementary schools,” Harrington explained. “So to me, just common sense was paying for additional capacity in an overcrowded school just seemed a little illogical if there was very good capacity in at least one of the other schools.”
Harrington said partisan politics shouldn’t determine educational issues, but noted a split down party lines regarding the portable classrooms and a preferred redistricting timeline, with four Democrats on one side and three Republicans on the other.
“It is often the minority team effectively that are asking sometimes some of the more uncomfortable questions,” Harrington said.
And on Monday, Board Secretary Neil Phillips, a Democrat, swatted down Harrington’s mention of the party divide.
“This is not a Democrat or Republican thing. This is a Westport thing, and I think we have to move away from that concept,” Phillips said at the Monday meeting.
In an email to CT Examiner, Lee Goldstein, Democratic board chair, said that while other colleagues insist on drawing party-line distinctions, she agreed with Phillips that it was not a partisan issue.
“Our [b]oard has never operated that way, and it’s a disservice to the community,” Goldstein said.
But while the entire board, and Superintendent Thomas Scarice, agreed that the projected 5.8 percent increase in enrollment among elementary school students over the next five years merited consideration of redistricting, the Democrats and Republicans on the board struggled to settle on a preferred timeline.
Harrington said he understood that redistricting for the 2023-24 school year would be too short a timeframe, but thought a limited redistricting for 2024-25 could be plausible.
“I would like to see the analysis for the fall of 2024. That – from this month – gives the community, the board, the administration, 20 months of planning before that redistricting – limited redistricting – would come into effect,” Harrington said.
But Democratic members argued that the board could not effectively create a long term redistricting plan without knowing the fate of Long Lots Elementary School, which would be decided by a newly-formed Long Lots Building Committee. The committee is currently deciding whether Long Lots – which houses almost 25 percent of Westport’s elementary school students and has a projected five-year student growth of 13.5 percent – should be renovated or rebuilt.
Scarice spoke against a fall 2024 timeline, which he said was too soon to implement.
“As far as 20 months of planning for 2024, that’s just categorically false because I would never recommend any redistricting without having every detail done at a minimum of ten months in advance of implementing,” Scarice said. “There are way too many details that have to be taken care of.”
Scarice said that redistricting decisions would impact the budget and personnel, and could not be made at the last minute. At the request of board members, Scarice also laid out key steps for any potential timeline.
First, Scarice said he needed know the results of a forthcoming updated capacity study, the plan for Long Lots, and the future location of Stepping Stones — Westport’s preschool program currently housed at the crowded Coleytown Elementary School.
Board members previously suggested moving the Stepping Stones program to Long Lots if the school were to expand. Scarice confirmed that the board could make that decision with a rebuild, but said the building committee could also decide to simply renovate. In that case, Scarice said, the chair of the committee had already determined that Stepping Stones could not fit in Long Lots. He recommended the board wait to redistrict until they received the capacity study to decide where Stepping Stones could fit.
Liz Heyer, Republican vice chair of the board, suggested the board be “firm with the town” on Stepping Stones and make the needed move before 2027.
Harrington pushed for board control of the planning as an “educational decision.”
“I definitely sit very uneasy that a building committee for the town of Westport is deciding where the school facility will be based,” Harrington said.
But Goldstein said the building committee could not determine where Stepping Stones would go, only whether or not it could fit in Long Lots. She said the board could instead consider putting the preschool in a middle school or another elementary school.
The second step in Scarice’s timeline was to solicit community input. He said that ample input was needed before and after the administration’s redistricting recommendation was made.
Third, the board needed a comprehensive master plan which would consider all possible redistricting options, Scarice said.
He said that the plan should also explore feeder patterns to the middle schools, as Bedford Middle School has historically maintained almost double the enrollment of Coleytown Middle School, and determine personnel relocation.
Scarice urged the consideration of standards for grandfathering siblings, grading configurations, special education programs and a traffic study to investigate the impacts of student transportation changes.
“That’s all in one big stew right there,” Scarice finished.
Heyer said she appreciated Scarice’s list, but said redistricting felt like a “ten-year project” if the board were to consider all of those factors.
“I’d hate to see us kind of overcomplicate this. I’m not saying it’s simple. It’s not simple by any means,” Heyer said. “I think we have an imbalance in our schools and we’re opening up a new school and we can decide how big that school should be. And I think we make those decisions based on that, and not try to solve for perfection because it’s impossible to achieve.”
Heyer instead suggested that the board and administration work together to set guiding principles for redistricting to fix the district-wide imbalance rather than “snowballing” the conversation. Scarice agreed that the principles would be a great place to start.
Before the meeting’s end, Michele Carey-Moody, co-president of the Staples High School Parent Teacher Association, addressed Heyer directly during public comment.
“Please don’t be disheartened and don’t feel discouraged,” Carey-Moody said to Heyer. “The administrators in this district are amazing.”
Carey-Moody encouraged the entire board to put their trust in the administration and feel encouraged because she believed the redistricting would work.