Fairfield Parents Sound Off on Plans for Redistricting Ahead of Tuesday Meeting

Parents and students packed into the Fairfield Warde High School auditorium on June 27, 2023, for school board meeting addressing redistricting.


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FAIRFIELD — Board of Education members and parents alike expressed dissatisfaction with a variety of plans to redistrict the local elementary, middle and high schools, citing long bus rides, feeder patterns that would split children from their friends and the need for equitable programming across the district. 

After being asked to consider three potential redistricting scenarios presented in June by the firm SLAM, the board agreed to drop two — a plan that would have turned Jennings Elementary School into an Early Childhood Center, and one that would have created “satellite zones” that would reassign pockets of students to new schools. 

Still, the board’s enthusiasm for the remaining scenario — a traditional redrawing of district lines — was tepid at best, and a number of board members said there would need to be “tweaks” to the current proposal.  

Superintendent Michael Testani noted that, of the three scenarios, a traditional redistricting would make it easier to make sure buildings were being used efficiently and make sure the district was racially balanced of the long term. 

“There are some things that have no rhyme or reason in how the lines are drawn. And we could make things maybe a little bit more balanced within that,” said Testani. 

Testani also presented the board with another plan, which would turn McKinley into a magnet school focused on science, engineering and the arts. Under the plan, a percentage of the students living in the “magnet zone” would be automatically entered in a lottery and be accepted into the school. The remaining percentage would come from outside the district. Current McKinley students would be allowed to finish out their time at the school. 

But Testani also warned that the magnet idea “in no way shape or form can miraculously save the day when it comes to the racial imbalance.” He noted that the magnet school would only work to reduce racial imbalance if there was enough interest in the magnet school from families who lived in other parts of town. 

Several board members expressed enthusiasm for the magnet school idea. But others hesitated, saying they felt the programming in science and technology should be offered in all the elementary schools.

“Is it only the lucky lottery winners who get to partake in this?” asked board member Nick Aysseh, who called the magnet school a “Hail Mary.” 

A long discussion also ensued about the district’s Early Childhood programming. Testani noted that a law passed by the state legislature this year that delays the start date when children can enter kindergarten could increase the number of children in the early childhood program, meaning that they would need more classrooms. 

“The numbers are showing that this could significantly grow over the next couple of years,” said Testani. 

Board member Bonnie Rotelli said that the Early Childhood Center was designed for children with special needs, and that priority for any decision made about the Early Childhood Center should be on what the staff needed to offer the best quality care possible. 

“This isn’t about if it’s convenient for the parent of a child to walk their child to a typical preschool. This is about children who are coming out of Birth to Three … who have sometimes significant needs, whose parents are often overwhelmed by their newly diagnosed children,” said Rotelli. “If we are not effective in the services that we provide to these children in that very significant and short window of three to five, we are going to be paying for it as a district in additional programming for a very long time.” 

Aysseh said that having the Early Childhood Center in one building would be the “gold standard,” and Testani said that a one-site ECC would be ideal and something the town should strive for in the future. However, he said Stratfield Elementary School would not be ideal for the program.

One of the “tweaks” to SLAM’s redistricting scenario proposed by board members was to make sure that the Early Childhood programming would be restricted to only two locations. Board member Christine Vitale said she didn’t want a scenario where only a handful of children were being moved from one elementary school to another. 

Other members said they wanted to consider another scenario, which would change what middle a given elementary school fed into based on geography. But board members also pushed back against having a “singleton” scenario, in which children from one elementary school were sent to a middle school and then moved to a different high school than their classmates attended. 

Several parents implored the board to expand grandfathering to include not only children in 5th grade or the last years of middle and high school, but also their siblings. One parent, Rich Perkins, praised the grandfathering of 5th graders but said the board needed to go further. 

“It suggests that we’re still potentially breaking up families here and that children — siblings — will be going to different schools. And there’s so much about that that does not sit well with me,” said Perkins. 

Jamie Williams Cooper, who is biracial and whose husband is Black, said that when she entered Stratfield, she had a long conversation with the principal, asking her to make Stratfield a “space” and a “home” for her daughter. 

“We had a very dynamic and honest conversation about what it means to be a Black child in a largely white town,” said Williams Cooper. “To now imagine that my children and the community that we have built will be ripped from their schools under the guise of racial imbalance is actually kind of comical.”

Williams Cooper urged the board to look at the current and projected demographics of Fairfield, arguing that the numbers had changed during COVID. She also urged the board to expand grandfathering to siblings. 

“What I want is to feel protected and safe in my environment, and this feels very unsafe,” said Williams Cooper. “This is a housing issue that Fairfield needs to solve for. This is not a schooling issue. We need to have equitable housing across the city.” 

Parent Meg Youngblood also echoed Williams Cooper. She said she supported the traditional redistricting because it would affect all parts of town, and she criticized wealthier areas of the town for what she described as years of refusing to allow affordable housing to be built in the area. 

“This is everybody’s problem,” said Youngblood. “It was crazy to think that we were moving forward with scenarios before today where the richest and wealthiest and whitest parts of town — that were the ones that have created this problem year over year over year by putting down affordable housing in their neighborhood — were going to be the ones that were the least impacted … And I’m glad we are collectively moving beyond that and realizing how problematic that was.” 

Other parents said the district should push back against the State of Connecticut and the racial imbalance law. Beth Negron, who identified as Puerto Rican and said she had two children who were adopted from Africa, said that while being one of the only Black children in her school bothered her daughter, she still preferred to remain in the school with people she knew.  

“I don’t believe that them having their cute little percentages spread out nicely on a spreadsheet is our children’s problem. Children should go to school in their community,” said Negron. “Children should be in their community, they should see familiar faces at school. This racial imbalance is not their problem, and you should push back to the State of Connecticut.” 

McKinley parents also spoke, urging the town to consider the redistricting as a town-wide issue rather than a problem that just affected McKinley. 

“McKinley is not imbalanced. Fairfield is imbalanced,” said Katie Romeo, incoming president of the PTA at McKinley. “When you change the approach from ‘Let’s fix McKinley’ to “let’s fix Fairfield” you may find a more suitable solution.”

The board will have another meeting on Tuesday, July 25 at 7 pm, to hear public input and take questions about the redistricting plans.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.