By Chris Teale (Photo/Alexandria City Public Schools)
It has not been done since 1999, and after tremendous population growth in the intervening years, the Alexandria City School Board has set the wheels in motion for redistricting elementary schools across the Port City in time for the 2016-17 school year.
The board announced in March they would commence their efforts having seen enrollment in Alexandria City Public Schools grow by 3,200 students, causing overcrowding at some schools while others are bussed across the city because of a lack of space. The aim of the redistricting is also to help more students attend elementary schools in the neighborhoods where they live, especially as ACPS anticipates enrollment to rise by four percent each year for the next five years.
“Redistricting doesn’t add more space to solve our citywide capacity issue, but it will balance zones to match our growth,” said school board vice chair Chris Lewis at the time. “Most importantly, it will benefit the hundreds of families who are currently displaced from attending their neighborhood schools.”
Under a draft redistricting criteria, the board would look to take into account factors, among others, like geographical proximity to a school, access to instructional programs and services, the capacity of schools, student safety as they travel to and from school and ensuring that class sizes adhere to ACPS policy.
One aspect of redistricting that is sure to split opinion is the so-called “grandfathering” of some students, which looks to minimize school assignment changes for those who have spent the majority of their time in one elementary school. The suggested focus for grandfathering in the criteria was grades three through five, so those students would not be uprooted to a new elementary school if they have three or fewer years to go until starting middle school.
At a work session last week, the school board debated the hiring of a third-party consultant to help with how the school system should be rezoned and put forward options to be carried out.
Board member Stephanie Kapsis asked about the role the consultant should play in communicating with the community and facilitating forums as the process begins to take shape over the coming months. Part of that communication will be ensuring that affected students and their parents know how the boundaries will change and which school they may end up going to.
Board member Patricia Ann Hennig spoke very highly of a computer model she saw in Richmond that broke down how redistricting would affect everything from school districts to the change in school bus routes.
She added that the model was available for use at public libraries, so people were able to access relevant information easier. It meant that only four public hearings were required on that particular bout of redistricting as those affected were very well informed already.
Board members agreed it would be best for the consultant to be based outside of Alexandria to avoid any possible accusations of bias in their redistricting efforts. Board member Marc Williams added that a consultant should be found who is used to dealing with a diverse population like Alexandria’s.
“It just takes the personal part out of the equation, so people don’t think it’s personal to their school or their community when you have someone from the outside who’s just doing it by metrics,” added board member Ronnie Campbell.
Based on the board’s current timeline, they anticipate issuing a request for proposals for interested bidders shortly as part of the procurement process, then having that consultant in place in time for the start of the next school year in the fall. However, school board chair Karen Graf noted in the meeting the fluidity that still is in that timeline, saying the overall process could take longer if necessary.
In addition to bringing in a consultant, the school board plans to convene a redistricting review committee, whose goals would be to assist the school board and make recommendations, albeit with the final decision still in the hands of the board.
The application process for the committee is open, and the board stated in draft guidelines that they would be looking to have one representative and an alternate from each elementary, middle and high school in the city, in addition to two other members of the Alexandria community and a current student.
The deadline for applications from those interested in being on the committee was originally slated to be June 4, but the board remained uncertain whether that would remain the deadline, as they considered taking advice from the consultant on the overall make-up of the committee.
Some board members expressed their desire to wait until the consultant is officially hired so they can offer guidance on how to form the committee, but others were reluctant to delay forming it for several months during the procurement process.
“I guess I don’t know what a consultant’s going to tell us differently on how we select our committee,” said board member Kelly Booz. “They may say, ‘Gosh, you might be trying to select too big of a committee to begin with’, but that’s one thing we know, we know the folks that are leaders and folks who are involved in our school system.”
Board members were keen to make sure that the role of the committee is clearly defined, as the final decision on redistricting and new zones would ultimately be made by the school board, after receiving recommendations from the committee and the consultant.
“I know in the past we’ve had committees formed, and their recommendations were not accepted,” said Williams. “I guess I’m wondering if there’s something that we could do to set expectations that obviously it’s the board’s decision. I just don’t want to be in a position where they say, ‘This is the plan’ and then if the board doesn’t accept the plan, they feel like they haven’t been heard.”
In response, Kapsis suggested that the application form cite the ACPS policy on the role of committees, whose capacity is to advise the school board before the board makes a final decision.
The proposal of grandfathering in the redistricting framework also was subject to a great deal of discussion towards the end of the work session, while other debate centered on the drawing of boundaries down the middle of some residential streets, as has been done in the past.
The board’s draft redistricting criteria suggests avoiding drawing boundary lines down the middle of a street, with Lewis saying that sometimes a street can make for a good boundary in certain circumstances. In response, Graf said that this aspect of the criteria made sense in some circumstances but not in others, and the zoning would look to reflect that as effectively as possible.
The issue of grandfathering generated more discussion, with board members promising to look more into it and ask the consultant when hired whether it is appropriate in this instance. At their work session, the board was split, with Lewis being strident in his belief that it is not a good course of action to take.
“I haven’t heard a reason in favor of grandfathering,” he said. “If everyone knows in the city that everyone will be impacted at the same time, that seems like a fairer way to get it done, especially when we’re talking about possibly revisiting this every five to 10 years.”
The board will next look to convene its committee and hire its consultant in time for the new school year, having stated when it first announced it would look at redistricting that the entire period of public consultation would likely last from May until November of this year. However, with so much yet to be decided, there is still plenty of flexibility in their timeline.