FAIRFIELD — A redistricting plan for Fairfield Public Schools will be tackled by an almost entirely new Board of Education next year. The current board is expected to approve the plan before the elections, even though nearly every candidate has said they oppose moving students out of their current schools. CT Examiner spoke to the candidates about redistricting and other challenges facing Fairfield Schools.
In January, the district contracted with consulting firm SLAM to create a redistricting scenario to address the racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary School and to rebalance the student population in a way that no one building would be overcrowded or underused.
But the board has yet to approve any of the proposed plans. Board members rejected proposals that would close schools and ones that would move only small numbers of students in “pockets” of current districts. Parents and board members have also requested that students who walk to school be allowed to remain at a school within walking distance, and that students nearing the end of their elementary, middle and high school years be allowed to finish out their time with their class.
Democratic school board candidate Katie Flynn criticized the current redistricting proposals, telling CT Examiner that they needed to adequately address not just the racial imbalance and the capacity of the schools, but also take into account the “educational outcomes and social emotional supports” for students.
“I don’t think anyone in this community is arguing that we don’t want to utilize our buildings well, or that we don’t want to see more diversity in our schools,” Flynn said. “I think the pushback is that it doesn’t feel centered in an academic experience at any level.”
Republican candidate Tracey Rinaldi acknowledged community opposition to the looming redistricting, but said that to find the right solution, the board needs to “lean on” district administration to better understand the needs of students, staff and families.
“I know that it’s a really sensitive issue and it’s sparked so much uncertainty and anxiety in the community. But it’s something that does have to be done,” Rinaldi said.
The candidates also offered different ideas about how many students should be moved.
Democrat David Krasnoff and Democratic school board incumbent Jennifer Maxon Kennelly both said the district shouldn’t move small numbers of students from one school to another. But Flynn noted that the district didn’t have the capacity to move larger numbers of children.
“Our community doesn’t have seats for large pockets of movement. Saying they want large pockets of movement, that means it’s only going to be in certain areas,” she said. “We’ve heard from SLAM over and over and over that this racial imbalance in our community cannot be solved by traditional redistricting, even if we erase the entire lines of the town and start it over. Not because we don’t want to, but because of the location and proximity of our schools to each other.”
Republican Jackie Bardenwerper said the district needed to preserve neighborhood schools as much as possible, and that her own neighborhood had been considered for redistricting in 2019.
“I was anxious, and scared, and upset and just uncertain of what this meant for my family and my own children. So I know what the parents are going through, and I know that moving children is never going to be easy,” she said.
Democrat Walter Domeika said he wanted to talk to parents and teachers to get a better understanding of what they wanted. He added that he preferred a scenario where students could voluntarily move across school boundaries, such as opening a number of slots in each school and allowing parents to send their children where they wanted.
On the subject of grandfathering students when school boundaries change, Maxon Kennelly said her views on the issue had changed.
Originally, she said, she felt grandfathering should be limited to seniors and possibly juniors. But now, she’s more open to the idea of allowing a larger number of students who would have been redistricted to remain in their current schools, along with a stipulation that parents would need to provide transportation.
“We know for a fact right now we don’t have the buses for that,” Maxon Kennelly said. “But as a notion … a very aggressive grandfathering is something I have become much more open to, and would be interested in seeing if we could make that work.”
Krasnoff said he believed the district should adopt a phased-in approach to redistricting, and should ask the state for funding to help with busing for students who would be grandfathered.
“I don’t think it’s fair that we don’t have funding or don’t have enough bus drivers to be the reason for not grandfathering,” he said.
Republican Jason Li suggested that students who lived within 0.7 miles of their school should be allowed to remain there.
Meanwhile, Rinaldi said she was in favor of grandfathering so that children would not have to switch schools midyear.
“No matter what scenario, there are going to be groups affected,” Rinaldi said. “But I think really looking at the effects and possibly thinking about grandfathering families so that midyear through they aren’t going to need to jump out of a school and go to another school.”
Magnet School Solution?
Candidates also held varying views on the idea of turning McKinley Elementary into a magnet school, a proposal that had been floated as a way of bringing more white students into the school voluntarily.
Flynn said she was in favor of exploring the idea.
“We saw a 10-minute presentation that did not look like any of the specialized programming we see in other communities,” she said of Superintendent Michael Testani’s presentation at a recent Board of Education meeting. “And West Hartford and Greenwich – the two communities that are seeing a shift downward in their racial imbalance – use those voluntary forms of movement.”
But Maxon Kennelly said the idea would not solve the racial imbalance problem.
“We’ve gotten little to no evidence in Connecticut that such an idea will work,” she said. “We’ve known for three superintendents that a magnet school in McKinley would never work … to solve racial imbalance.”
She also noted that the McKinley community had already said “loud and clear” that they did not want the school to become a magnet program, meaning the district would have to choose from one of its other 10 elementary schools.
Krasnoff said he preferred a different type of specialized programming, such as offering an International Baccalaureate program at one of the schools.
“I do think you would get a lot more people to opt in, especially people coming from Manhattan, because it is something in Manhattan that is offered and it’s a very attractive option,” he said.
Domeika spoke in favor of Stamford’s Academy of Information Technology and Engineering, which he said allowed students to test into the school, and also brought in students from outside the district.
On the Republican side, Li said he wasn’t in favor of the magnet school idea and Rinaldi said she would want to see data. Bardenwerper, however, liked the idea.
“I think the magnet school would be an amazing addition to Fairfield. I’d very much like to see it explored further in the future, and I think it would be a great way to address racial imbalance,” Bardenwerper said.
Still, Bardenwerper said, the district should consult McKinley parents about their concerns and adjust the plan accordingly before seriously considering a magnet school.
“While I really do like the idea of a magnet school, I think there needs to be more work done before we can say it’s a viable option.”
But most candidates acknowledged that the state is unlikely to grant Fairfield more time to weigh its options.
“I think this is something that the state is implementing and they do want to see action on. And I think for that reason, we should really dig deep into these different proposals and think about ways that we can get to a redistricting that fits the needs of the state as well,” Rinaldi said.
Li said he was also concerned the district could lose financial assistance if the State Board of Education denied their request for more time. Maxon Kennelly noted that the state already denied the district extra time to explore a magnet school program.
“If we go to the State Board of Ed and say we want an extension because we want to hear if there are changes, my sense is they would have zero patience with that. They have pretty little patience with Fairfield as it is,” Maxon Kennelly said.
Another challenge has been the district’s Early Childhood Center, which is strapped for space.
Robert Mancusi, executive director of special education and student services, has asked for the district to group about five ECC classrooms together so teachers in the program could share resources.
Most current school board members were in favor of a one-site ECC, which ECC staff have said would create the best environment for students and teachers.
Rinaldi, whose son attends the ECC, said her son’s teacher agreed that a one-site ECC would work best.
Li also agreed.
“If I’m a teacher, I’m not sure if I want to have to drive from one side of town to the other. If you have everything at your fingertips and you’re able to give the quality of education these kids need, that’s the important part,” he said.
Krasnoff said he thought the ECC needed a long-term plan, and wondered if it could be part of a rebuild of Dwight Elementary School. But he also noted that the ECC plan shouldn’t disrupt other students’ education.
“It’s extremely important, but there’s a fine line with should it disrupt our mainstream students. And I don’t want to see students in portables because of an ECC,” Krasnoff said.
Maxon Kennelly and Bardenwerper said they believed a one-site ECC would be best, but recognized the challenges. They said the idea of “clustering” classrooms at a few sites might be an alternative solution.
“At the very least, we need five classroom clusters as outlined by Mr. Mancusi. We need to give them the support they are asking for, and we have to be cognizant that this program is going to be growing quickly,” Bardenwerper said.
This story has been updated