Fairfield to state: More time needed to carry out racial imbalance plan

Superintendent Mike Cummings and Board of Education Chair Christine Vitale addressed state officials Wednesday.

Superintendent Mike Cummings and Board of Education Chair Christine Vitale addressed state officials Wednesday.

CT-N Connecticut Network

HARTFORD — The state wants to see concrete plans for addressing Fairfield’s racial imbalance issues.

Though the town gave an update to the state Board of Education on Wednesday, explaining they are committed to alleviating racial imbalance at McKinley Elementary School, officials stated they cannot begin doing so until other facilities issues are solved.

The state labels schools as racially imbalanced when the proportion of minority students for any school exceeds 25 percentage points more than the comparable proportion for the school district.

As of Monday, McKinley had a minority population of 55.25 percent, exceeding the entire district’s minority population of 25 percent by over 30 percentage points.

McKinley was tagged as imbalanced back in April 2007, but has made little progress on evening out minority balances since then. Past strategies have tried to bring additional students to McKinley by creating opt-in and magnet programs, but neither have been successful.

Now, the district is left with the last option in their 2017 plan: redistricting.

This is not something the Board of Education would do lightly, especially given the opposition the idea has encountered from McKinley parents.

“As we talk about the racial imbalance of McKinley, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is a vibrant community,” Superintendent of Schools Mike Cummings said. “It’s a community of parents that have been resistant to the idea of redistricting, and they’re very happy in the school.”

The state Board of Education was sympathetic to Fairfield’s plight, but nonetheless agreed they must enforce the law by balancing the town’s schools.

“I can imagine that inducing parents whose children are there to send their children elsewhere would be an extremely difficult thing to do,” said state Board of Education Chairman Allan Taylor. “And yet we’re all dealing with a law that is quite clear as to what must be done.”

Fairfield Board of Education Chair Christine Vitale explained they are committed to exploring options around redistricting and have enlisted the consulting firm Milone & MacBroom to evaluate the situation.

She said they will use these results to begin communitywide conversations around redistricting options, but was clear due to current overcrowding issues, implementation could not begin until at earliest 2022 when renovations at Holland Hill and Mill Hill are completed.

Additionally, Vitale said, they will need to consider racial imbalance alongside other facilities issues currently in debate, including overcrowding and the Early Childhood Center.

The approval of Mill Hill as 441 rather than 504-capacity school will also require the board to re-evaluate its redistricting options.

“If we’re going to go through something like redistricting, we’re going to ideally address everything so that we’re only disrupting the community once,” Vitale said.

Racial imbalance, the state Board of Education noted, is not the fault of the schools or an isolated problem. Rather, member Miguel Cardona said, it is a symptom of housing patterns and racial divides in Fairfield and similar towns throughout the state.

As such, the state said Fairfield should be prepared for talks of redistricting to rouse up uncomfortable conversations around race and equity that go far beyond the schools.

“There are a lot of hard, difficult, brave conversations that are going to have to happen, and it’s going to require the (town) as a whole,” said board member Malia Sieve.

Cummings agreed, and said they are committed to setting an example for the town by engaging meaningfully with these questions.

“We have an opportunity here to do what’s right as a community and reset the bar, and as a public school system we have to embrace that,” Cummings said.

Vitale and Cummings promised to come back to the state in a year with a more solid vision of what potential redistricting could look like.

“I can’t say the problem will be solved in a year, but we will be closer,” Vitale said.