WESTPORT — The schools superintendent urged the Board of Education to accept a two-year timeline for redistricting at its Monday meeting, but pushback remains.
“This is just a more measured approach, to step back and say the target date will be September 2025,” Superintendent Tom Scarice said.
Board members have been at odds over a timeline since first debating the issue in January, with Republicans wanting a quickly executed plan and Democrats advocating for a slower approach.
Scarice said he stood by his original recommendation of a 2025 redistricting date, arguing that although elementary school enrollment vastly exceeded predictions over the last three years, the most recent enrollment numbers for next year were below projections. He said this indicated the pandemic-driven enrollment spike might be evening out.
Scarice also warned board members that expecting the district to execute a comprehensive redistricting plan by next fall would put too much pressure on administrators and teachers, who are responsible for the day-to-day functions of the district at the same time.
“You want to move a family once, move a student once, and not get it wrong,” he said.
Under the superintendent’s plan, the school board would develop criteria for a consultant, who would create multiple redistricting scenarios. The board would need to approve a plan by August 2024, following community outreach. The district would then have a year to map transportation routes, make budget and staffing plans, and prepare students to move to their new schools.
Board Chair Lee Goldstein reminded members about Scarise’s past experience with redistricting.
“We as a board hire a superintendent, and then we have to rely on that sort of judgment and experience as we decide,” Goldstein said. “None of us have redistricted. [Scarice] has, and, not that that makes him perfect or infallible, but it does make him the person whose opinion about the timeline I trust.”
But Republican board members Liz Hayden and Dorie Horton underscored the situation at Long Lots Elementary School, which is overcrowded.
“We have schools that are overcrowded, which is not great for the educational programming or the students at those schools,” Hayden said. “And there are certainly some parents who would say that those situations are not ideal and need to be improved with some urgency.”
Horton said music classes are taking place in school hallways, and that the two portable classrooms the board voted to add at Long Lots haven’t affected scheduling in the gym and lunchroom.
“I feel like as a board, our job is partly to provide a properly sized academic learning area to make sure that kids fit properly into a building,” Horton said. “I think if there’s space at other schools that could accommodate them, it just seems foolish not to use it.”
Scarice said there was no evidence indicating Long Lots students were performing worse academically than other students, and that the use of temporary classrooms hadn’t been mentioned in the school climate survey completed by the district. He also noted that 300 parents signed a petition in favor of temporary classrooms and were not pressing for a faster redistricting timeline.
Democratic board member Christina Torres said she believed a slower rollout would give families the opportunity to get used to redistricting.
“We should try to build in more time to make that transition more positive in terms of the mental health of the children, and also just for the families to be able to have input and also to adjust to the idea of the movement,” Torres said.
But Republican board member Robert Harrington said he doubted parents would be in favor of any redistricting plan. He also pointed out that potential renovations at Long Lots and Coleytown Elementary School would not happen until 2027, adding more complexity to the process.
Harrington said he preferred a more rapid timeline, and took issue with others calling the Republicans’ push “chaotic” or “hysterical.”
“I don’t think trying to push and ask questions about trying to relieve the pressure in one part of the school system is necessarily taking a chaotic view or a rushed view,” he said. “I would like to see us push a little harder to see if we can get to a better situation in a more timely way.”