FAIRFIELD — Responding to criticism aimed at the latest redistricting proposal, the consulting firm hired by the Board of Education to resolve the district’s imbalance warned that no plausible solution could include all of the priorities demanded by board members and the community.
At the meeting on Tuesday evening, Board Chair Jennifer Jacobsen expressed frustration with the consultants for the length of time it took them to return with a scenario that, she said, didn’t fix the problem.
“I’m just feeling like we waited six weeks for a scenario that didn’t come back with what we asked for,” said Jacobsen. “[This scenario] doesn’t resolve racial imbalance. It’s imbalanced still. And it doesn’t balance utilization, which, when you ask about outcomes, that was our goal.”
The new proposal would move about 17 students from Jennings and 42 students from Stratfield into McKinley Elementary. Forty students from Mill Hill and 24 from Holland Hill would also move. McKinley would still shoulder the brunt of the impact, with about 100 students being transitioned to Stratfield. Classrooms in Jennings and Holland Hill would also be repurposed for special education classrooms for preschoolers.
Three board members called the scenario a “non-starter” and others said they wouldn’t support the proposal as written. Board member Nick Aysseh noted that the proposal was not as efficient at solving the racial imbalance problem as other scenarios that had already been considered.
Members of the board had said that they did not want to move small groups of students from one school to another, preferring that larger groups of students should be moved so that the burden of redistricting was more equally distributed.
But Michael Zuba, director of public education master planning with SLAM Collaborative, told the board that it would be impossible to address the racial imbalance in the district using a traditional redistricting scenario.
“I’ve been saying since our July 13th meeting that traditional redistricting is not going to get you 20 percent racial imbalance. And … I’m asked again and again to do a traditional redistricting to get you below 20 percent racial imbalance,” he said.
Zuba said that based on the population centers of each area, it wouldn’t be possible to move equal numbers of students from one school to another. He also said the space available within the schools prevented them from moving larger groups of students between schools.
The board’s desire for contiguous zoning, he said, also created challenges. Moving children from McKinley to schools to the North, which also had a higher concentration of minority students, would not make a large difference in the racial composition of the schools. Moving children to schools to the south, which are more predominantly white, wasn’t possible because of space constraints.
“We’re really hamstrung by the geography and the program placement,” said Pat Gallagher, planning manager for SLAM.
Zuba also said the board needed to zero in on their priorities.
In the prior scenario, he said, SLAM was asked not only to eliminate the racial imbalance at McKinley and to ensure that the schools were not overcrowded or underused, but also to find adequate space for specialized programs for early learners, to make sure that children walking to school would remain at their neighborhood schools and to minimize changes to the way that elementary schools feed into middle and high schools.
“We want to have a single voice directing the consultants so that we know it’s a board consensus of what we’re taking on and what we’re working on,” said Zuba. “Because we feel like there’s just a lot of different goals by different members, and we’re unsure of what our next steps should really be.”
“They just want it done”
Board members debated for hours how they wanted to move forward, ultimately failing to come to any clear consensus.
Board members Jeffrey Petersen and Bonnie Rotelli said they felt that scenario 1A, which proposed transforming Jennings into a district-wide Early Childhood Center, should be reconsidered, given that it addressed both the racial imbalance and the crowding and underutilization of certain schools.
“I think we’re trying to find another scenario that’s going to make everybody happy. And we’re never going to find that,” said Rotelli.
Several other board members said they were interested in asking SLAM to refine scenario 4, a traditional redistricting, but prioritize certain changes over others.
A long discussion ensued about where to place an additional five classrooms for the Early Childhood Center. Superintendent Michael Testani noted that a new law pushing back the kindergarten age meant that the district was expecting an 41 additional Pre-K students in the 2024-25 school year.
Several board members raised the idea of turning McKinley Elementary into a magnet school, which had earlier been proposed as a potential way to change the racial composition of McKinley by incentivizing parents from other areas to send their children there.
Board member Christine Vitale said she wanted a more in-depth look at the idea of turning McKinley into a magnet school. But Testani warned that a magnet program would not solve the problem. He said based on the emails he received, it did not seem that parents were interested in sending children outside of their neighborhood schools.
Vitale said she saw the magnet school as a way to fix the racial imbalance issue slowly, over time, without moving any students out of their current school. Both she and Jacobsen said they felt the state Board of Education would support the idea, even if it wouldn’t happen immediately.
“I think they would prefer that we go with a voluntary option rather than a forced movement,” said Jacobsen.
Other members disagreed. Petersen said he felt asking for a longer-term solution risked “poking the State in the eye.”
“It’s honestly a joke to think the state board has any more patience with us. Anything they’re saying is lip service,” said Aysseh. “They don’t care how we do it. They just want it done.”
And Rotelli said she was frustrated with the board’s willingness to move students out of McKinley for a magnet school while they pushed back against moving children out of other elementary schools to make space for the preschool special education classrooms.
“This program deserves one location. We keep talking about it like it’s a hot potato. It gets rejected from every school community because nobody wants it. These kids need an effective early intervention program. They need a home,” she said. “This directly affects their entire educational experience for the rest of their lives.”
Board members ultimately came to a tentative consensus to ask the consultants to work with Scenario 4, prioritizing reducing the racial imbalance, adding two sites to place 10 Early Childhood classrooms with one of the sites being Holland Hill Elementary, keeping all schools open and making sure that students were redistricted across contiguous zones.
Testani said he would meet with the SLAM consultants Wednesday to see if it was possible to complete a new version of Scenario 4 by the board’s next meeting on September 12.