School splits: Redistricting, new school--poof!

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Holiday 36

Six weeks ago, affluent Ivy was up in arms over a school redistricting committee proposal to ship Henley and Western Albemarle-bound students to Burley Middle and Monticello High this fall.

Devastated students and their families from high-end neighborhoods like Farmington, Ednam, and Bellair filled a February 8 public hearing to plead for their western-bound lives.

After all the tears and consternation caused by the proposal to slice off Murray Elementary's eastern section and take large chunks of Stone Robinson and Cale students to fill an unbuilt, unnamed, and un-sited southern urban elementary school, the school suddenly disappeared from the plans. Whoosh!

 And on February 15, the redistricting committee recommended minimal student changes for the fall 2005. Whoosh!

What happened?

"The whole thing seems like a debacle," says Regina Carlson, a Buckingham Circle resident who mobilized against the plan that would have left one of her daughters at Western and put the other downtown at Burley. "I felt bad for the redistricting committee because they're volunteers. They put in all those hours, and it seems like a waste of time."

"I hate to say it's a waste of time," say Ray Caddell, who served on the committee. "The problem with this particular redistricting committee is that we began with some flawed data."

One flaw was believing that the county was serious about building that new elementary.

Besides filling the phantom school, another purpose was eliminating "split-feeder" patterns that send an elementary school's students to two different middle schools, a friend-fracturing phenomenon that has long been the bane of some parents at Meriwether Lewis, Ivy's other top-ranked elementary.

"The southern elementary was not doing what it was supposed to," says Diane Behrens, who's in charge of redistricting for the Albemarle school system. "It's not that we had bad data, we just didn't recognize how all the dominoes would fall," she explains.

So now the redistricting committee will reconvene in April or May for phase two. "It's frustrating, but we don't want to rush to make a plan without carefully considering everything," says Behrens.

"It's tremendously frustrating to spend all that time and then have to start over," says Caddell, especially when told at "11-and-a-half hours" that the basis of what drove the majority of the committee's decisions was no longer part of the plan.

Another thing still disturbs Caddell about his recent experience: "The level to which some people went to express their concern about demographics– not racism, but elitism." He didn't mention any names, but many parents buy houses in tony western Albemarle neighborhoods just to send their children to the county's western schools.

In phase two, Caddell vows to ask a lot more questions. After reviewing hundreds of pages of information, "We're the experts by the end of the process."

While the School Board directed the committee to eliminate split-feeder patterns, Caddell no longer sees that as a valid redistricting goal.

"This is a mathematical issue that has to be solved," says Caddell.

Behrens will be looking to the School Board for its recommendations on its highest priorities. "We had the written charge, but is it proximity, diversity, or split-feeder patterns?" she asks. "We circled a bit around that. The next round, I'll want to make sure we have very clear directions from [Superintendent Kevin] Castner and the School Board."

She defends the work of the redistricting committee– even though it can spend a lot of time working on a plan that could be rejected by the superintendent or the School Board or as the result of public hearings. "We wanted to hear from the public," says Behrens.

As for the trauma caused by announcing a dramatic move for some communities, there's no avoiding it. "Otherwise you'd be accused of keeping it a closed process," she points out.

The current long-range plan for Albemarle is to expand Cale Elementary. Of course, that was before the news that a huge subdivision could be in the works off Old Lynchburg Road [See "Breeden's Eden" in this issue]. Could the southern urban elementary reappear as abruptly as it disappeared?

Whatever the redistricting committee comes up with, Ray Caddell knows one thing will hold true: "Nobody wants to move. Not one out of the 700 calls or emails said, 'My kid is in a crappy school. Please move him.'"


Ray Caddell was disturbed by the rampant elitism that cropped up during Albemarle County's most recent redistricting efforts.

PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO


Cale gets bigger in the redistricting
du jour.
PHOTO BY LAUREN BROOKS

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