Board of Education grapples with specter of structural change to fix racial imbalance
FAIRFIELD — For more than a decade, Fairfield’s Board of Education has been working to develop a realistic strategy to alleviate the racial imbalance in one district school, as mandated by the state, always stopping short of a large-scale redistricting project.
Members of the Board of Education have been wondering aloud what the repercussions might be if they chose not to heed the state’s regulations entirely.
“It’s conjecture because the state has never had somebody say, ‘We are not going to comply to your regulations,’” said Chairman Philip Dwyer at the board’s last regular meeting on June 26.
In September 2017, Dwyer went before the State Board of Education to present a racial imbalance plan that would, hopefully, reduce the concentration of minority students at McKinley Elementary School — which at the time had 30 percent more minority students than the district average — and spread diversity more evenly across the district. The state requires that the imbalance is below 25 percent.
The plan includes school expansions, possibly turning McKinley into a magnet school and redistricting if the imbalance remains.
Board member Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly noted that within the last year, the racial imbalance at McKinley has taken a favorable downward tick.
“Right now we are moving in a good direction, that might continue and that will very much change the view of the state towards us, based on past practice,” Maxon-Kennelly said.
Many board members also felt that, because the size of the upcoming Mill Hill School renovation project has not been decided, and because not enough had been shared about the impact of possible changes to grade configuration or the creation of a magnet school, it was too soon to have a serious discussion about redistricting.
“We need more information. I don’t want to make a knee-jerk reaction,” Maxon-Kennelley said.
However, the Fairfield Board of Education and administrators are on the hook with the state board, to whom they’ll have to answer in June 2019 if steps to mitigate the imbalance haven’t been taken.
“We did commit to talk about redistricting,” said Superintendent of School Toni Jones, referring to the plan presented last year to the state. “I’m going to have to stand in front of the state board and be able to say we had the discussion.”
Dwyer added that the state board not only wants to see Fairfield’s imbalance below 25 percent but would like to see further improvements on racial imbalance, as far as 16 or 17 percent.
“Past boards since 2007 have said, ‘We’re so close to the 25 percent measure, what can we do to just duck underneath it?’ So in seven years, we’ve ducked underneath it once. The other 6 years we talked our way out of it with the State Board of Education,” Dwyer said. “From time to time, this board, a minority of this board, has talked about what can we do that can get down to 16, 17 percent so that it doesn’t show up on our agenda every 2 years? Or does this board want to continue the path of saying, the least disruption, let’s just try and get slightly under the 25 percent and deal with it in 2 or 3 years.”
The Board of Education next meets Aug. 28.
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