How the Fayette County schools redistricting affects the real estate market

Lexington would have to go a long way to have a school redistricting process as unpleasant as the one in Union County, N.C.

The Charlotte Observer described a school board meeting this year at which a surprise redistricting vote was taken: "During the vote, parents booed and yelled, 'No,' 'You disgust me' and 'How dare you.' Some were escorted out of the meeting room, while others left in tears. Parents have been worried about the disruption for their children, having them attend lower-performing schools or seeing their property values drop."

Union County parents opposed to the redistricting efforts formed the group Citizens for Adequate Public Schools. Some also filed a lawsuit. So far the group has failed to get an injunction prohibiting the redistricting from going forward.

Fayette County's redistricting committee began meeting in April, making sure that the public could not say redistricting was a surprise, as was the case in Union County.

But now, six months into the process, the amount of time it's taking to create a redistricting plan might be causing potential home buyers to sit on their buying plans and fret over what the new district lines might mean for the value of their homes, a less than robust economic recovery and more stringent mortgage qualification standards.

Fayette school redistricting committee members hope to take a plan to the district's school board in early 2015, but redistricting committee chairman Alan Stein said that it was important for the real estate market in Lexington to regain its momentum, and Fayette Property Valuation Administrator David O'Neill concurred.

"They're holding off," Stein said of potential home buyers. "They want to know if the new homes are going to be redistricted, or, I'm guessing, they may not move because they may like where the district is."

Stein acknowledged that some neighborhoods are likely to come out of the redistricting process unsatisfied, as was the case in North Carolina.

In Lexington, the redistricting changes will go into effect when two new elementary schools open in 2016 — on Georgetown Road and off Polo Club Boulevard — and a new high school opens in 2017 on Winchester Road.

A recent survey by the Lexington-Bluegrass Association of Realtors asked 400 respondents about local schools, including their preferences for everything from fundraising (by a narrow margin respondents want the ability to raise as much money as they could for the benefit of their own children) to support for establishing charter schools.

In the survey, 75 percent of respondents indicated that area schools were of at least some importance in their housing choice; 78 percent supported assigning students to schools based on proximity.

Linda Wiley, president of LBAR, said that while redistricting might be part of the slowdown in home buying, the area's real estate market is also still struggling to catch up with 2013 levels — when, from January to September LBAR reported 3,799 home sales compared to 3,522 during the same period in 2014 — and has worked hard to recover from the recession in 2008-09.

Home buyers aren't just struggling with issues about where to send youngsters to school, she said, they also have problems with low housing supply and higher standards to qualify for mortgages.

"I have individuals that call and say, 'I am going to be working here and I would like to live in this area,'" she said. "Most have already looked at the school's test scores ... and they will say, 'I would like to live in one of these three elementary schools, or this elementary school and this middle school.' If they cannot find something in that school district, they may decide it's worth something of a sacrifice not getting exactly what they're looking for."

The number of houses sold from July-September 2012 — during the summer moving period before school starts — was 28 percent higher than in 2011, according to O'Neill. For 2013, the three-month period surged 24 percent higher than in 2012.

In 2014, sales for the three-month period were down 101/2 percent, O'Neill said, adding he had heard privately from a large number of Realtors who are eager for the redistricting lines to be drawn.

The redistricting committee has "a responsibility to the community and the economy to not draw this out," he said.

The perception that family-oriented buyers are on tenterhooks for school redistricting "is absolutely there. Whether it is really true or not remains debatable — the perception about schools influencing the velocity of sales and timing of sales," O'Neill said.

Stein wants to pick up the pace of redistricting and stop the local speculation, even if it means some groups will be unhappy. If parents whose children are currently districted to attend overcrowded schools such as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School all got their way, Stein said, the school would remain overcrowded.

"If parents all over the district had a choice, it would be way overcrowded. ... we've got to deal with that," Stein said.

A new high school on Winchester Road will ease some of the overcrowding at Henry Clay, he said.

Richard Day, associate professor of educational foundations at Eastern Kentucky University, is a former principal at Lexington's highly regarded Cassidy Elementary School in Chevy Chase. He's eagerly watching the redistricting saga.

"The way this plays out, particularly with elementary school parents, you move to town, you look for a neighborhood," Day said. "What will happen in the end is somebody is going to draw a line. Students who used to go to school A will go to school B. ... What you end up with, in a public perception, is a bunch of winners and losers. People react accordingly."

The identity of those unhappy with the decisions, and the neighborhoods who feel they've been slighted, might change according to the way the final maps are drawn.

"There are some (solutions) that are better than others," Day said. "You can examine the impact that certain policy values will ultimately derive" — such as striving for a better racial balance, or a better balance of free-and-reduced lunch students — "but that does not make the unhappy people go away. It may change who they are."

He's also skeptical of the argument that school lines cannot interfere with those who identify themselves and their properties as "neighborhoods."

"I'm hearing 'neighborhood' come up over and over again," he said. "It is an engaging notion. ... If you try to do neighborhood schools in Lexington and Fayette, you will satisfy ... but you will resegregate the county in the process."

Under draft scenarios presented at the most recent meeting of the Fayette County redistricting committee on Oct. 23, the city's five — soon to be six— high schools were considered under several filtering criteria. The committee showed interest in a scenario with the fewest adjustments, providing the overcrowding at Dunbar could be alleviated, and a scenario that adjusted the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches so that the high schools had a more equitable distribution of lower-income students.

Angie Kerrick, whose son has attended Picadome Elementary and Stonewall Elementary while the family stayed in the same home in Hidden Springs neighborhood, said she hoped her home was not redistricted again, as it was when Wellington Elementary opened.

"The friends that I have that are buying homes right now, they're all staying very close to the actual school, so the chance of going to a different school is slim to none."

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