FAIRFIELD – Unimpressed by three proposed redistricting options to address racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary School, a crowd of parents and the schools superintendent called for changes to an “antiquated” state law at a Tuesday meeting.
The state Board of Education first identified McKinley as racially imbalanced 16 years ago under a 1969 law, which says a school’s minority student population cannot exceed 25 percent of the district’s average minority population.
While the district average is 26 percent minority students, students of color made up nearly 56 percent McKinley’s student body. Seeing little progress from Fairfield’s school board to address the imbalance, the state has asked the town to approve a redistricting plan by Oct. 30.
But at the Tuesday school boarding meeting, parents piled into the Fairfield Warde High School auditorium to protest three redistricting proposals and ask the board to instead push back on the racial imbalance law.
Peter Saluk, the father of a second-grader at Holland Hill Elementary School, said his family moved to Fairfield from Wilton last year because the town offers racial diversity. The issue being presented as a racial imbalance rather than a socio-economic imbalance is “a little bit ridiculous,” he said, urging the board to protest the state mandate.
“My kids could be uprooted from the life that we’ve chosen to live here because of the great diversity,” Saluk said. “You are the board that is supposed to work for us. … I’m going to ask you to push back.”
Superintendent Michael Testani, sitting beside board members on the auditorium stage, later joined parents in asking the community to push back against the law. He said the board, which has long advocated for McKinley’s diversity to remain intact, needs the town to come together.
“This nine-member board has been charged with a task from the state of Connecticut that if … you want to be supportive of the board and you want to be together, this fight needs to be taken to the state Department of [Education],” Testani said.
Whatever the community can do to bring neighborhoods together and influence change at the state level would be “very helpful,” he added.
But school board Vice Chair Nick Aysseh pointed to numerous failed attempts by the group to deter the state. Fairfield members met with the state Board of Education last year but made no progress, he said.
“What came out of that was a clear understanding from the state board that they’ve had enough of us kicking the can down the road,” Aysseh said. “… We made the pleas about COVID, we made the pleas about needing to do this in a thoughtful, deliberate approach that was going to take time and most likely was going to be very difficult to do in the short time frame that we were given. It went on deaf ears.”
Aysseh said the board explored alternatives such as filing for a hearing, but discovered that only the state Board of Education could bring forth a case.
“It’s like they’re judge and jury,” he said.
Aysseh argued the town has no standing to fight the state’s redistricting timeline, as it’s made little progress since 2007 to address the racial imbalance. Additionally, he said, Fairfield is one of only three towns out of compliance with the 1969 law.
“There’s only three of us in the state,” he said. “So think about this – why are state reps that represent other towns going to get on board with fighting the racial imbalance law, when it’s just a few of us out here?”
Changing the law, he explained, would mean many state representatives would need to “go out on a limb” to challenge a rule that does not impact their constituents.
School board member Christine Vitale said attorneys have advised them to follow the law and act in good faith.
“That is what we are trying to do today,” she said.
The majority of speakers on Tuesday also criticized three redistricting options presented to the board earlier this month by S.L.A.M. Collaborative, an architecture and planning firm.
The options include scenario 1a – converting Jennings Elementary into a districtwide preschool center and moving Jennings students to McKinley and Burr elementary schools; scenario 3 – moving small groups of students from McKinley and Stratfield elementary schools to other elementary schools; and scenario 4 – redrawing the boundaries for all 11 elementary schools.
Jennings parents and students, in particular, firmly opposed the first scenario.
Patricia Bernard, the mother of a fourth-grader at Jennings, questioned why the board would attempt to consolidate the Early Childhood Center – currently housed at both Warde High School and Stratfield Elementary – when they are only mandated to address racial imbalance.
“I do not trust that we can effectively solve each of those problems with one solution,” she said. “One size doesn’t fit all here.”
Bernard also questioned why the board would repurpose Jennings when the S.L.A.M. presentation named it the third-most diverse elementary school in the district, and the closest to the district’s average minority student population of about 26 percent.
“I question the reasoning behind repurposing a model school, considering the statement you are solving for,” she said. “Scenario 1a will further segregate Fairfield as the more diverse section of the Jennings neighborhood would be moved to McKinley, while the whiter section of the Jennings neighborhood would be going to Burke.”
Lenny Moitoso, the father of a third-grader at Jennings and teacher at Roger Ludlowe Middle School, argued for reorganizing the entire district instead of targeting a single school.
“We the people created this problem together as a whole, it is only fair that we the people share the burden to help get us out of it,” he said.
Following public comment, the board reviewed each of the options. Board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said she had issues with all three scenarios, but that scenario 1a had the most obvious flaws.
“How can I not be moved by the notion of what would happen to that community?” Maxon-Kennelly said. “I, likewise, live in a community that is very tight knit, that has lots of walkers, that has that strong sense, and that’s not something to be taken lightly.”
On the other hand, she noted, the board has heard “earnest pleas” for years from preschool program staff for a centralized location in town.
Board member Jeff Peterson said he was reluctant to eliminate scenario 1a, also citing pleas from ECC staff. And between scenarios 3 and 4, he said he leaned toward scenario 3 – the “satellite zone” concept – as he said it would better address racial imbalance in the long term.
According to S.L.A.M. projections, all elementary schools would appease state racial balance laws under scenario 3, whereas scenario 4 leaves McKinley and Holland Hill’s minority student populations at least 20 percent over the district average.
Board Chair Jennifer Jacobsen said the public’s comments would be taken into consideration in the next phase of the redistricting plan. Over the summer, she said, Testani and the central office team plan to iron out the details of each option, such as transportation costs, classroom capacity and impacts on staffing.