Sunday, March 27, 2016

Update on redistricting discussion

Very busy work week, so very little posting. But I did want to post an update on the board’s redistricting discussions. We had a work session on Tuesday where some of the board members (including me) expressed some reservations about whether it makes sense to try to settle the 2019 elementary boundaries by this May, which has been the board’s stated goal. Here are some of the concerns:

  • We’re drawing districts for schools three and a half years before those schools are scheduled to open.

  • We’re using enrollment projections that were done almost five years before those schools are scheduled to open.

  • The 2017 school board election will occur two years before the new districts will take effect. That means that any redistricting decision we make will be subject to change by the next board, which could have as many as three new members.

  • We’re drawing a district for a school (Grant Elementary) that we don’t even know if we’ll have the funding to build. The funding for Grant is part of a planned $100+ million bond proposal that will go to the voters in 2017. If the bond doesn’t pass (and if the state doesn’t bail us out by extending our SAVE funding in the meantime), any redistricting we do will have to be redone after the 2017 election. This is an issue beyond just Grant, as our redistricting is also taking into consideration the planned bond-funded additions at other schools such as Garner and Lemme.

  • Proceeding on schedule almost certainly means using traditional attendance zones. Yet there has been a lot of discussion about the possibility of developing a plan to reduce the concentration in any one school of students with high levels of need. (For this purpose, the district uses, as a proxy for high need, the number of students who are receiving free or reduced-price lunch, who are English-language learners, or who are receiving special ed services.) To significantly reduce those concentrations using traditional attendance zones would require very substantial changes in boundaries and possibly additional busing expenses.

    I have been trying to read up on some of the social science literature on efforts to diversify schools by socioeconomic class. I hope to post in more detail about that literature at some point. One aspect of that literature is that it focuses largely on incentive-based ideas (such as magnet schools) or other systems that give parents some degree of choice in the selection of schools—as opposed to mandatory assignment to schools through traditional attendance zones. (“[T]oday’s integration relies on public school choice, magnet schools, and incentives, rather than compulsion,” writes Richard Kahlenberg.)

    I don’t think we can consider a system like that if we have to act in the next eight weeks; there is just not enough time to develop and evaluate one. (Yes, the district did a magnet school study, but it would still be a tall order to turn that into a concrete plan that could win board approval in the next eight weeks.) So by settling the 2019 boundaries now, we might be short-circuiting the discussion of choice-based arrangements, or we might be moving forward with an approach that the next board will reject. Holding off on the decision, on the other hand, would give advocates more time to develop those ideas, to build support for them in the community, and to advocate for particular board candidates.

Would there be drawbacks to waiting? Yes. For one thing, we just solicited community input and received feedback from people in sixty neighborhoods. That feedback wouldn’t suddenly become invalid if we waited, but we certainly raised an expectation that we’d move forward. And I’m sure some people would prefer to have closure sooner rather than later (though, again, anything we do would be subject to change by the next board).

There is also the issue of the effect on secondary school assignments. Our current secondary feeder plan—which has to go into effect by 2017, when we’re opening a new high school—doesn’t actually draw secondary boundaries; it just assigns certain elementary school areas to particular secondary schools. Under that kind of feeder plan, it makes sense to settle the elementary boundaries before the new high school opens. (See this long, boring post.)

I have my doubts about some aspects of the feeder plan, but I’ve been arguing that we should revisit it only after we’ve settled elementary boundaries. If we were to delay the elementary redistricting, though, we would have to go ahead and settle who’s going to go to which secondary schools in 2017. And we might have to do it by actually drawing secondary boundaries.

For example, under our current feeder plan, the land right across the street from Liberty High is in the Wickham Elementary zone—and thus would attend West High. The assumption has always been that that land will become part of the Grant Elementary zone, and thus end up (sensibly) at Liberty. If we postpone drawing the elementary boundaries, it would still make sense to determine that a portion of the Wickham zone should attend Liberty when it opens. We could go ahead and decide that now. If that line becomes the southern boundary of the Grant zone in 2019, fine; or, if necessary, the board can adjust it when it eventually draws the Grant zone.

Regardless of what we do with 2019 attendance zones, it makes sense to look for shorter-term ways to address some of the challenges faced by schools that have a lot of kids with high levels of need. The district has begun to implement a weighted resource allocation plan that is a step in that direction. In particular, I’d like to see if we could reduce class sizes at high-need schools (which means, yes, at the expense of class sizes elsewhere). If that has the added effect of pulling kids from other areas into those schools through voluntary transfers, that would be good to know. I hope I can discuss that more in a future post.

Please note: All of this is just thinking out loud. It takes time to think through all the implications of pursuing one course rather than another in such a complex enterprise (which is my only excuse for not anticipating some of these issues sooner). I’m still thinking them through, and I suspect other board members are, too. Maybe the board will decide that going forward now makes sense. Maybe some other Eureka moment is just around the corner. As our board chair says, we need to go through a phase of diverging before we can start to converge. Better to get these concerns talked out than to regret not raising them afterward.

Let me know what you think in the comments.

Redistricting information

Here are some links to information about our school district that could be useful in thinking about the redistricting process that the board is discussing. There are many more helpful documents on the district website, but these are some that I like to have handy:

Saturday, March 19, 2016

School board agenda for March 22

Some of the items on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting:

The administration is asking the board to approve three high-level administrative hires: Diane Schumacher as Director of Curriculum/Instruction/Assessment, Adam Kurth as Director of Technology/Innovation, and Scott Kibby as principal of Liberty High. News coverage here. Agenda item here.

I asked that we put our community comment policy on the agenda. The current policy allows up to one hour of community comment at the beginning of each board meeting, with each speaker allowed to speak for up to four minutes; after an hour, any further speakers are put off until the end of the meeting, which might be hours later. By that time, the board may already have acted on the topic the speakers came to address. I know we can’t allow an infinite number of speakers, but I’d rather hear from more people at the beginning of the meeting. I raised the issue now because as we go into the redistricting process, we could see an increase in the number of speakers.

We’ll also be asked to approve the 2017 Operations Life Cycle budget. This budget allocates money from the Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL) and the Secure an Advanced Vision for Education (SAVE) fund. Both PPEL and SAVE funds can be used to maintain, repair, and upgrade physical facilities and grounds. Those funds cannot be spent on operational expenses such as teacher salaries. More info here.

After the board meeting, we’ll have a work session to continue our discussion about redistricting. Info here. There are not yet any scenarios on the table; so far, we’ve still been asking for information about “building blocks”—that is, how many students live in particular areas.

All that and more. The full agendas are here and here. Please chime in on anything that catches your attention.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

It starts

At last night’s work session, the school board took some of its first steps toward discussing the elementary redistricting that will go into effect when we open two new elementary schools in 2019. We’ve been laying the groundwork for some time (by, for example, inviting public input), but tonight felt like the icebreaker for our own discussion. The discussion was still pretty preliminary—most of it was about what kind of maps and data we’d like to see before we start developing boundary ideas—but we’ll be moving onto more specific ideas very soon.

I know the board will be under a lot of scrutiny as we talk this topic through, as it should be. Some people will have to change schools as a result of the decisions we have to make, and we won’t be able to accommodate everyone’s preferences, so it’s easy to see why people feel strongly about the topic. To me, that just makes it all the more important that we have candid, uninhibited discussions at the board table. I don’t think we can reach a good result without going through a phase of brainstorming and thinking out loud. I hope people will understand that just because a board member raises a possibility, that doesn’t mean he or she is dead set on doing that thing or even thinks it’s a good idea. I’m sure I’ll say some things and take them back five minutes later. I’ll probably also play devil’s advocate to question ideas that I actually like. I just think that kind of conversation is the only way to figure out what the best (or least bad) possible outcome is.

In that spirit, I’m going to try (time permitting!) to write some posts here as we along. Again, these posts will just reflect partial, often very tentative thoughts (which is exactly what blogging is suited for). The whole point of airing them will be to hear the pros and cons and counterarguments. I would love it if people would chime in with comments. I can’t promise to reply to each comment, simply because of my time constraints. When I have too many comments (and emails) to keep up with, that’s sometimes a good problem to have.

I can speak only for myself, but I don’t go into this process with a fixed idea of what the final map should be. If anything, I’m confounded by what it should be.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

School board agenda for March 8

Some of the items on the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting:

The board is about to order an updated enrollment report, which will give us enrollment projections for (I’m assuming) the next ten years. This week, we’ll discuss what information we’d like that report to include. Info here.

We’ll discuss the board’s decision to bring back the seventh-grade football program that the district cut two years ago during that year’s wave of budget cuts. This issue came up at the board’s Education Committee meeting last month, and there was a consensus for allowing the program to be brought back. But afterward enough questions were raised that I asked to have the topic put on the agenda for further discussion. (See this post.)

The board will discuss our annual evaluation of the superintendent. By law, because it involves a personnel evaluation, this part of our meeting has to occur in a closed session (not open to the public).

At its work session after the regular meeting, we will also be continuing to discuss redrawing attendance zones in preparation for the opening of Liberty High in 2017 and Grant and Hoover East Elementaries in 2019. One topic will be what kind of additional maps and data the board would like to see as it goes into that process. Info here.

One thing I’d like to see is a map that would show what the elementary attendance zones would look like if we sent every child to his or her closest school. We can’t do that, of course, and might not choose to do it even if we could. But I think that map would help us explain to people why we can’t always do that. For example, it would show very clearly when the number of people who live closest to a particular school exceeds the capacity of that school building. In those cases where we have to send people to a school that isn’t the one closest to home, it would help to be able to have a clear explanation of why it had to happen. (See this post.)

Also goats. Goats are on the agenda.

All that and more. The full agenda is here. Feel free to leave a comment below about anything that catches your attention.