State Board Sets Final Deadline for Fairfield’s Racial Balance Plan, Despite Plea for Extension

Fairfield school officials meet with the State Board of Education on March 6, 2024, regarding the district's racial balance plan (CT Examiner).

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FAIRFIELD — Despite the local superintendent’s pleas for another extension, the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to mandate that Fairfield’s school district submit a new racial balance plan by July, in compliance with state law.

Since 2006, McKinley Elementary School has been out of compliance with a 1969 law which states that a school’s minority student population must not exceed 25 percent of the district’s average minority population. Located just one mile from the Bridgeport city line, the elementary school consists of 56 percent minority students, compared to the 26 percent district average.

The state board initially requested that Fairfield submit its racial balance plan by June 2023 but extended the deadline to October, allowing time for the district to evaluate redistricting options from SLAM, a consulting firm. But five months past the extended deadline, Fairfield remains without a plan and is now required to submit one by July 3.

Addressing the board on Wednesday, Superintendent Michael Testani warned state officials that the new timeline may be too tight for Fairfield.

“If we’re going to do anything that is going to get them in the racial balance, it needs to be done very carefully, very thoughtfully,” he said. “And I think we need a little bit more than 120 days to successfully do that.”

Over the summer, the local school board held a series of well-attended meetings to gauge public opinion on SLAM’s options. Scenarios such as redistricting one elementary school, sending small groups of students to other schools, creating a magnet program or redistricting all 11 elementary schools were consistently opposed by parents, students and staff.

Testani said McKinley parents have largely enjoyed the diverse elementary school and want to ensure that students are not uprooted from their neighborhoods. Instead, he said, parents have asked for a change to the “antiquated” state law

To avoid displacing small groups of students, Testani said the district is now considering ways to shift larger groups. But he added that the town needs time to find additional space, as classroom utilization is also currently unbalanced across the district.

“We are looking and currently trying to explore other options. We know that we have a responsibility to address the racial imbalance,” Testani said. “However, as of today, we have no definitive place to land.”

While several state board members said they understood the district’s predicament, none moved to extend the 120-day deadline.

Board Chair Karen DuBois-Walton told Testani that the group was not trying to displace McKinley students. Rather, she said, the state wants to ensure all Fairfield students have a diverse educational experience, not just those at McKinley. Board member Malia Sieve also noted that the state education board has no control over the legislature and must enforce compliance. 

While the law garnered similar opposition when it was proposed by the state Legislature in 1969, the majority of legislators agreed that the bill would help reduce segregation in Connecticut schools and lessen educational disparities. According to district statistics, McKinley’s math and reading scores have been consistently lower than Fairfield’s 10 other elementary schools.

Along with Testani, local school board Chair Jennifer Jacobsen and Vice Chair Nick Aysseh, and several Fairfield residents traveled to Hartford to plead for additional time. One parent, Greg Bosch, acknowledged the need to fix the longstanding imbalance, but said its root cause has not yet been addressed — housing.

According to Bosch, the average price of a house in northern Fairfield’s Greenfield Hill neighborhood has risen to $1.6 million in the last two years, whereas the average price in the McKinley neighborhood is $500,000. The town’s zoning regulations have long encouraged the cost disparity, he said, and caused the elementary school’s racial imbalance.

“Fairfield zoning regulations inform the types of housing in our neighborhoods. Their type informs the affordability of those neighborhoods. The end result is our socio-economically segregated and racially imbalanced schools,” Bosch said. 

Bosch said the Town Plan and Zoning Commission has continued to worsen the imbalance, as there are currently 700 new housing units being developed in the McKinley area. Rather than enforcing redistricting, he said the state board should require Fairfield to reexamine its zoning laws.

Later in the meeting, Sieve said she “heavily” agreed with Bosch’s argument, but reiterated that the board could only recommend collaboration with town zoning officials, not enforce it. 

“I would love it if we actually had a bigger conversation about how to address all of that,” she said. “But the here and the now? I would love to hear that there’s a plan that is actually bringing other people in the town outside of education together.”