FAIRFIELD — It’s been 15 years since the local public schools fell afoul of the state’s rules on racial balance, but the Board of Education is still hoping the state will approve an extended deadline for the district to find a solution acceptable to the town.
McKinley Elementary School has met the state’s definition of racial imbalance since 2008. The school’s population is made up of 56 percent minority students, compared to 26 percent minority students in the district overall.
In May 2022, the State Board of Education met with Fairfield for a progress update on a redistricting plan to solve the racial imbalance, and the state board told then-Fairfield school board Chair Christine Vitale and current Chair Jennifer Jacobsen that the district needed to prioritize finishing the plan.
“We are looking for you to make this a priority because you are violating the civil rights of students in the town of Fairfield right now,” State Board of Education Chair Karen DuBois-Walton told Vitale and Jacobsen at the time.
In November, the state board approved a timeline that would have required Fairfield to submit a plan by June to be implemented in the 2024-25 school year. That deadline was then extended to October.
But at Fairfield school board’s Tuesday meeting, Jacobsen said they still did not have a concrete plan for the following school year. The best way forward, she said, would be to draft a brief resolution summing up the work the board had done and its future plans.
Jacobsen said she wanted more time to consider long-term facilities planning and the amount of space for programming in the district. In addition to addressing the racial imbalance, the board has also been trying to balance utilization across the elementary schools — some of which are nearly full and others which have ample space — and find space for five additional early childhood classrooms for students with special needs.
Board member Nick Aysseh said, based on the group’s work up to this point, redistricting would only minimally change the racial composition of the schools.
“For me, it doesn’t move the needle significantly enough,” he said.
Aysseh said the plan included more than just redistricting as a solution for the racial imbalance, and that if redistricting wasn’t something the community wanted, they should remove it from the plan.
“I think ultimately, whether the state likes it or not, we’re going to have to tell them that we need time,” he said. “And I think we have a lot of documentation, we have a lot of evidence, we have a lot of backup. I think they will see the amount of work that we put in. I hope that that doesn’t go on deaf ears.”
Board member Carol Guernsey noted the emotional nature of the discussions around redistricting, and how the group had heard community opposition to the scenarios presented by the consulting firm SLAM.
But the community and board members raised concerns about aspects of each scenario — including the closure of an elementary school, having students who previously walked to school be bused in, and having small numbers of children moved from one school to another. They also said they wanted students to be “grandfathered” into the plan, so they wouldn’t need to switch schools.
Superintendent Michael Testani underscored that McKinley parents also said they wanted their children to remain in the school.
“I think it’s been clearly articulated from the McKinley school community that they love their school. They love being at McKinley. I don’t know how much clearer that can be made,” Testani said.
Parents with students at Holland Hill Elementary School came out against the district’s most recent redistricting proposal, which would have, among other things, moved students from Holland Hill to McKinley to accommodate early childhood classrooms. Since Holland Hill has the earliest start time of any school in the district – 8 a.m. – parents argued the change would make it difficult for households who had two working parents.
Testani said the State Board of Education cannot order Fairfield to take a specific course of action to rectify the racial imbalance.
But the state board does have the ability to withhold funding from districts that don’t comply. Under state law, the State Board of Education can open a complaint and order an investigation into a district that fails to “implement the educational interests of the state.” By law, this includes creating “educational opportunities for its students to interact with students and teachers from other racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.”
The state board can also ask the Superior Court to issue a court order compelling a district to take corrective action.
Board member Jeff Peterson said he was “pessimistic” about the state board’s reaction to Fairfield’s request for more time.
“My concern is they’re going to say, ‘You didn’t do the work. All you did was argue and not make a choice,’” Peterson said, adding that the Fairfield school board should go to the state board with “humility” and ask for help.
Peterson also questioned whether, if the state refused an extension of time, that would place the district in a bind with its budget.
Testani said the district should be “open and honest” with the state board and try collaborating.
“I think we have enough information and data to share that this is not Fairfield being resistant to wanting to do anything, or defiant. It’s that we are truly at a crossroads that we don’t know what the next path will be that will serve the community and the children of this community and the families in the best fashion,” he said.
Board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly said she was also concerned about the reaction from the state.
“The beat down we got last year — it was … emphatic and unequivocal,” she said.
Peterson and Vitale noted that the state board had also raised concerns about the academic achievement and chronic absenteeism at McKinley during their meeting last year. Vitale suggested that Fairfield start working on ways to put more staffing resources into McKinley in the next budget, and look at changes around school climate and diversity, equity and inclusion.
She also suggested sending a survey to the community to see what specialized programming parents might want for their children.
Board member Bonnie Rotelli reminded the group that, regardless of the decision on redistricting, the district still needed to make a decision about how they wanted to distribute the additional special education preschool classrooms.
The State Board of Education’s Director of Communications Matt Cerrone told CT Examiner that the board could not comment on the conversation at the Fairfield meeting.
Fairfield is scheduled to appear before the state board’s Legislation and Policy Development Committee in November.
You can find a video stream of the meeting on Darien TV79 here