Lines drawn: Farmington freaks over change

"This is the talk of the soccer fields, I can tell you," says Janet Shobe, president of the PTO at Virginia L. Murray Elementary School in Ivy. She's talking about a redistricting that could force parents in such tony neighborhoods as Farmington, Bellair, Ednam Forest, and Flordon to face the prospect of busing Junior to a new school on the south side of town.

"It's a nonstop issue," says Shobe. "Everyone just loves our school."

Particularly upsetting to some parents is the idea of putting the little ones, sans seatbelts, onto buses traveling on I-64 to an as-yet-unpurchased school site, likely near Fifth Street Extended.

"I'm sure they're going to call us whiney rich people," says a Bellair mom who requests anonymity. "But that's not the case. It's a top to bottom change affecting kindergarten to high school. We feel particularly disrupted."

The Bellair mother isn't sure such a school is even needed and believes growth in the southern urban ring could consist largely of retirees or college students.

"It's disconnected from this community socially and geographically," says the anonymous Bellairite, who points out that parents have long chosen to live near Ivy because of its top-rated schools, Murray and Meriwether Lewis.

"I know four people who've moved here just for the school system," says the Bellair source. "That's why land values on the west side of town are high."

"If you look at our scores," says Shobe, "I think we're rated best in the county," an honor that used to belong to Meriwether Lewis.

Currently Murray students go on to attend Henley Middle School and Western Albemarle High. And unlike their peers at Meriwether Lewis, Murray kids don't face a "split-feeder" pattern that sends some to Jack Jouett for middle school (which primarily feeds into Albemarle High School) and then back to Western three years later.

In fact, it's that split feeder pattern– long a sore spot with Meriwether parents trying to maintain their children's friendships– that led to the redistricting committee.

"Middle school redistricting is a nightmare," says at-large School Board member Brian Wheeler, referring to the Jouett detour. "We discussed it at 13 meetings– and then we didn't do anything."

School officials say it's too early to tell how the redistricted school lines will be drawn. "Rumors are going around," says Wheeler, himself a Murray parent, who has been getting phone calls from concerned parents.

Wheeler acknowledges that people who live on the boundaries of school districts or feeder patterns are much more vulnerable to redistricting. "What I'm doing," he says, "is telling people about the process, and how they can be involved."

Whatever the eventual lines, the county's long-range planning committee, already in existence, wants a new southern urban elementary built by 2007.

On October 26, the planning committee met with the newly appointed redistricting committee to deal with anticipated growth.

Bellair resident John Stokes has been attending the redistricting committee meetings. While spectators are welcome, they're not allowed to speak.

"Any neighborhood school, whether it's Murray or Stony Point," says Stokes, "where you're happy with the school, you want your children to continue going."

Also affected are UVA's Piedmont faculty neighborhood and Buckingham Circle, which has fended off redistricting attempts in the past.

The Murray community has rallied against perceived threats before. On October 27, it scored a win against Faulconer Construction's plans to build a facility near the school when the Board of Supervisors rejected the company's site plan until eight requirements are satisfied. (Since the Virginia Supreme Court refused to hear the Ivy Community Association's lawsuit, it will be up to the Supervisors to decide the multi-year battle.)

And that's why the community is mobilizing so early in the redistricting process, Shobe says.

Some Murray parents have expressed fears the cleaving of the school is already a done deal. "Absolutely not," responds Diane Behrens, Albemarle's executive director of support services, who points out that past redistricting efforts haven't always succeeded. "There's nothing that's a done deal."

But School Board member Gordon Walker, who represents much of the Murray district, isn't so sure. "I would suspect that area is going to be impacted."

The redistricting committee began talking about specific plans November 30. According to Behrens, the plan set before the committee includes Buckingham Circle in the new southern urban school district– but not the Ivy Road neighborhoods.

The schedule calls for a finalized plan by January 4. Public hearings are set for February 1, and Superintendent Kevin Castner will present his recommendation to the School Board February 24.

"We're trying to take a look at the data and how it affects the entire county– the big picture," says Behrens, who is well aware of how wrenching redistricting can be. "It can be an emotional issue," she says. "Although students usually do well with change, adults have a harder time."