Distressed: Murray mobilizes on school lines


Every year a guidance counselor comes to talk to eighth graders at Henley Middle School about what they can expect when they go to Western Albemarle High School in the fall.

The weird thing about this year's routine visit? At least a dozen of the eighth graders just found out they may not be going to Western after all.

"I could have cried," says 13-year-old Brea Thomas. All through her years at Murray Elementary and Henley Middle, she thought she was headed for Western.

"I was going to Western," she says. "One day, I walk in the door, and I'm not going to Western."

Thomas is not alone in her dismay. Letters went out January 26 to Murray families advising them that a redistricting committee proposal slices four of the county's most affluent neighborhoods– Farmington, Flordon, Bellair, and Ednam Forest, as well as Buckingham Circle and UVA's Piedmont faculty housing– from the Murray school district and ships them to an as-yet un-built southern urban elementary school.

Especially devastating for eighth graders like Thomas is that the plan now calls for her to go to Monticello High this fall, while Murray fifth graders who were expecting to go to Henley will find themselves at Burley Middle School.

"I thought it was ridiculous they were doing it so soon," says Thomas, who, along with some of her friends, plans to object at a February 8 public hearing. The proposed school is slated to open in 2007– but the land hasn't even been purchased yet.

Just as it did when Faulconer Construction attempted to locate a heavy-equipment yard beside Murray, families are rallying around that Ivy-area school. First step: letting the redistricting committee know just how they feel about what they see as the destruction of their close-knit community.

"I think I can speak for the majority of parents," says Bellair resident John Stokes, who attended most of the redistricting committee meetings. "We're disappointed by the plan."

One of the goals of the committee was to eliminate split-feeder patterns, long a sore point at Meriwether Lewis Elementary. Most of its students, like their peers at Murray, go to Henley and then Western. But a few Meriwether students are "split" off to Jack Jouett Middle School before rejoining their elementary school pals in high school at Western.

The proposal eliminates the Meriwether split-feeder pattern. But "It's frustrating because it creates a split-feeder pattern at Murray," says Stokes. Until the new southern urban school is built, redistricted Murray students will say farewell to their friends in the western part of the county in the fifth grade and head east to Burley and southeast to Monticello High.

Regina Carlson, spokeswoman for Buckingham Circle, asks, "Why not look at other southern schools nearing capacity, like Red Hill, that would be going to the same middle and high school?"

Most perplexing to the Murray community is that removing 66 students– 25 percent of the small school's 264 capacity– will necessitate cutting the school's staff and services. And– unlike other parts of the county– Ivy is not a growth area.

However, Diane Behrens, the director of support services for Albemarle schools, notes that Murray's projected enrollment of 300 for fall 2005 exceeds capacity.

And she stresses that the plan is not a done deal. After the February 8 hearing, the redistricting committee may "tweak" it before it goes to Albemarle Superintendent Kevin Castner.

"He told me he'd love to be able to support the plan the committee sends forward," says Behrens– but that doesn't mean that he has to. Castner's recommendation will then be presented to the Albemarle School Board in March, followed by another public hearing.

"We were trying to put out a plan that takes advantage of K-12 capacity that doesn't under-populate schools," explains Behrens.

But the committee plan also leaves Stone-Robinson Elementary, with a capacity of 532 students, looking at an enrollment of 346 in 2007.

Another challenge in the student shuffle is trying to boost chronically under-populated Burley Middle School. A county school situated in the middle of Charlottesville, Burley is nobody's neighborhood school.

While the Murray crowd has monitored the redistricting committee since last fall, the plan to send the high-ticket neighborhoods south wasn't on the table until the very last meeting January 18.

In an email to the committee, Farmington parent Victor Dandridge calls it "truly frightening that in the span of less than 30 minutes, the committee chose to completely dismantle all the work" previously done toward developing the southern urban elementary "by selecting a renegade redistricting approach."

Regina Carlson echoes Dandridge's concerns. "You'd like to feel when people are making a critical decision that affects people's lives..." she pauses. "There's a sense there wasn't a lot of thought put into this. They were just playing with numbers."

Carlson expects a large turnout at the public hearing. "It looks like the Murray community– not just those being redistricted– see it as a major break-up of an established community," she says.

While no one is publicly accusing the redistricting committee of an ulterior motive to reduce the student population, at least one parent can't help but wonder about the consequences of pushing the four pricey 'hoods from top-rated Murray to an unknown southern elementary.

"It's like they're almost betting," says an Ednam Forest resident, "these people are going to send their kids to private school."

Buckingham Circle's Regina Carlson is concerned about the logic of proposed redistricting and a split-feeder plan for Murray Elementary students that would re-route daughter Rachel to Burley Middle School and her older daughter, Julia, to Monticello High.