Plan to address McKinley racial imbalance sparks heated debate
FAIRFIELD — With a state deadline looming, the Board of Education debated a plan to lessen the diversity gap between McKinley School — with nearly half minority students — compared to the district’s other elementary schools.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, school board members expressed frustration with the state requirements and options on the table, as well as with each other.
The state requires all schools in a district to be within 25 percentage points of the district average for minority students within the same grade spans.
McKinley, compared to all Fairfield elementary schools, has been out of the state-acceptable range for five of the past six school years. The school enrolled nearly 48 percent minority students last year, while the district average for its 11 elementary schools was just over 20 percent.
The state board notified the district that McKinley “continued to be racially imbalanced” in May 2015. The district’s plan is due to the state Board of Education by Nov. 18, meaning Fairfield’s board will need to act at its Nov. 15 meeting to make the deadline. The plan is set to be presented at the state board’s Jan. 4 meeting, an extension from the original Dec. 7 presentation date afforded due to incoming Superintendent Toni Jones’ Dec. 5 start date.
The Racial Imbalance Plan, in place since 2007, allows students to opt in to McKinley, a measure that has not helped address the imbalance. It offers preschool options at Burr and Timothy Dwight elementary schools that allow enrollees to continue at either school and siblings to join once they reach kindergarten. Furthermore, it utilizes Open Choice, a program for Fairfield and other suburban districts that offers space to Bridgeport students in their schools.
Amendments presented Tuesday night called for the Dwight preschool program to be phased out and replaced with a new location at Stratfield Elementary School. Dwight’s preschool enrolls only one McKinley minority student, while Burr enrolls six.
The changes further called for 18 additional Open Choice students to enter district elementary schools next fall, and another 18 in fall 2018. If the measures did not suffice, it proposed the consideration of a magnet program at McKinley for Fairfield students in the future.
Interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy called the plan a “modest, cost-effective” response to the state to show a “good-faith” effort to address the racial imbalance, appropriate given the current leadership transition and ongoing construction at Holland Hill and Mill Hill elementary schools. He estimated it would cost $145,000 to implement its first year, offset by $96,000 in revenue from preschool tuition and Open Choice.
Some board members expressed concern about the cost of adding 28 Open Choice students over two years, skeptical the cost would actually be what it was estimated at — none. Tracy said even lessening the imbalance a small amount would bring the district closer to meeting state requirements, since only a 2.2 percentage-point gap needs to be closed. Open Choice is a predictable fix, he said, because Bridgeport children in the program are “virtually all” minority students.
“This appears to be a Band-Aid for maybe one year, at best,” board member Eileen Liu-McCormack said of the plan. She said she does not believe the options, in particular Open Choice, would fix the racial imbalance and could instead attract additional issues.
Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly accused Liu-McCormack of hinting at redistricting as the solution, which Liu-McCormack denied.
A study conducted by a consulting firm the board hired concluded earlier this year a long-term redistricting solution would require the completion of construction projects at Mill Hill and Holland Hill, slated for 2022.
Maxon-Kennelly, as well as board member Jessica Gerber, called on Liu-McCormack to bring any permanent solution she had to the board ahead of the vote next month. Liu-McCormack said she would look into alternatives or redistricting if the board would be interested in those options.