The Board of Education will submit a new racial-balance plan to state education officials, after its members voted 7-1 Thursday night to pursue that course.
Board member Peter Bernstein made the successful motion for the board to direct Superintendent of Schools William McKersie to develop a plan to be submitted to the state Board of Education, which will identify existing programs and services, as well as recent board actions, that address racial imbalance. McKersie will then submit that plan for the board’s approval at its April 24 meeting.
“It encompasses the actions that the board is taking and is prepared to take,” Bernstein said of his motion in an interview with Greenwich Time after the board’s meeting Thursday at WesternMiddle School. “The ultimate goal is for the achievement of all students, at all schools, at all levels. The action the board has taken to request the administration to study achievement will hopefully move the needle.”
The board’s recently approved measures related to racial imbalance include:
- Evaluation of academic programming and services at New Lebanon, Hamilton Avenue and JulianCurtissSchools. Those three schools were chosen, in large part, because they have large numbers of low-income students, who are generally on the low end of a districtwide academic achievement gap running along socio-economic lines.
- Evaluation of potential magnet-program themes at Hamilton Avenue.
- Launch in the 2014-15 school year of a magnet program at WesternMiddle School.
- Exploration of the potential renovation and/or expansion of New Lebanon, which is grappling with overcrowding. The board has approved a $100,000 allocation in the district’s 2014-15 capital budget for a feasibility study of major capital improvements at the Mead Avenue school.
- Evaluation of rules related to the district’s four magnet programs, an assessment that covers transportation, middle-school assignment and lottery protocols.
“I think we’re in a really good place, and I think all that built up to it has put us here,” board Chairman Barbara O’Neill told Greenwich Time after the meeting. “Now we can go forward with a plan and give it to the state and really focus this plan on student achievement. Racial balance and facility utilization play into that, but achievement is first.”
When adopted, the plan will constitute the board’s response to the state Department of Education’s racial-balance mandate, which stipulates that any public school’s percentage of minority students should not exceed its district’s proportion of those pupils by more than 25 percentage points. Minority students account for about 70 percent of the populations at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, while minority pupils represent about one-third of all Greenwich public-school students.
The state has not set a deadline for Greenwich to submit a new plan. Greenwich last submitted a racial-balance proposal in 2007, but it has not prevented the district from subsequent citations by the state for racial disparities at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon.
Board members have also not ruled out again invoking “unique school” status for Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon. The two southwest Greenwich schools arguably meet the state’s designation of “unique” because of their magnet programs. Some board members maintain that classification would give Greenwich more leverage with the state in racial-balance negotiations.
Stefan Pryor, the state education commissioner, rejected last October the board’s original assertion of unique-school status for Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon, but he did not dismiss the possibility of Greenwich trying again for that designation.
Peter von Braun cast the dissenting vote against submitting a new plan.
“I find that the racial-balance law has no educational virtue whatsoever and that we should focus on improving the educational achievement of the minority kids in the community and not perpetuate the silliness of thinking that moving kids on a percentage basis is going to have any benefit whatsoever,” he said.
“I find that irrelevant to the document presented to the board,” replied Jennifer Dayton, the board’s vice chairman. “I do not find mention of that. I’d like to know if you could please point out in the document where you see that discrepancy.”
“I find the whole process defines the intent that I discussed,” von Braun responded.
Von Braun’s opposition contrasted his remarks at the board’s Jan. 9 meeting, when he asserted that “it would be foolish of us not to submit a plan.”
Board member Peter Sherr, von Braun’s strongest ally on the board, differed from his Republican colleague by supporting a new plan. He cast his vote by calling into the meeting, because he was out of town.
“Children of Greenwich are the winners,” he said in a statement. “Fortunately, the Board of Education smartly decided to focus on student achievement and reject racial quotas and social engineering schemes. We can only hope the state Board of Education will join us in the effort and help us raise performance for all children regardless of race or economic background.”
Kim Blank, a North Street School PTA co-president, expressed support for the board’s strategy.
“In reading the suggested action for tonight, we believe you have arrived at a solution that truly takes into account the needs of all stakeholders,” she said. “Correctly, the plan you will vote on tonight puts academic achievement first, while respecting the wishes of the majority of parents, who can continue to send their children to their neighborhood school.”
But Harry Fisher, a former Board of Estimate and Taxation member and the father of a Greenwich High School sophomore, argued for a more combative approach.
“I think it’s time to stand up to the state and just say no,” he said. “This does nothing for achievement. Moving kids around does nothing for achievement. We should put achievement first. We should concentrate on those aspects that bring achievement and forget about the arbitrary nature of racial balance.”