Fayette schools redistricting becomes contentious as neighborhoods organize

Reducing overcrowding at Fayette County schools is among the goals of the redistricting committee. Three new schools are set to open by August 2017.
Reducing overcrowding at Fayette County schools is among the goals of the redistricting committee. Three new schools are set to open by August 2017. Herald-Leader

When the Fayette County Public Schools redistricting committee announced that it would tackle overcrowding at Wellington Elementary School, residents in the Willow Oak and Willow Bend neighborhoods started to worry.

Fearful that their children will be reassigned to a low-performing school or have to travel longer distances, residents of the two neighborhoods south of Man o' War Boulevard near Nicholasville Road launched a campaign against being assigned to another school.

They are among hundreds of people across Lexington attempting to have their voices heard as Fayette County's schools go through a contentious redistricting process. Attendance boundaries are being examined for all elementary, middle and high schools.

In addition to emails and phone calls, the two neighborhoods are planning an online petition and a Facebook page.

Neighbors "are worried about our property values going down the tubes if we get sent to another school," said Hal Morris, who lives in Willow Bend.

Morris said he bought his house because it was in Wellington's district: "We like the fact that it's a high-achieving school."

Karen McNees, who also lives in Willow Bend, said she would be attending the 4:30 p.m. Thursday redistricting committee meeting at the district's Central Office.

The meeting is set to begin with a discussion of the Wellington assignment boundaries. McNees has sent emails to attract more people to the meeting.

"There is nothing more powerful than neighbors that have that common interest, that common goal, just trying to unite to work together. Nobody knows your neighborhood the way you do," McNees said.

The neighbors have decided to lobby the more than 20 members of the redistricting committee and Daryl Love, the school board member assigned to their neighborhoods.

They're not the only ones raising their voices.

Redistricting committee chairman Alan Stein said he's received hundreds of phone calls and emails about dozens of schools from residents of various neighborhoods, even though no decisions about redistricting have been made. It will be at least spring before the committee offers a proposal to the school board.

Stein said there was no reason for people to call school board members at this point, because they don't have a say in the plan until the redistricting committee submits a proposal.

Love said he is contacted by people concerned about redistricting two to three times each day.

"I respond directly to the emails I receive, and I also encourage the sender to share their feedback via the Attendance Zones section on our website. This will allow their concerns to be heard by the entire committee," Love said.

The neighborhood campaigns gather steam whenever the committee discusses a possible scenario to reassign families from one school to another.

"As each one of them sees their name as a possibility, they get all freaked out. I respond to every email ... I appreciate their comments. They are taken seriously," Stein said. "We talk about each of these neighborhoods. But we are nowhere near making decisions."

The school district is redrawing school boundaries for the first time in a decade because of construction of another high school and two elementary schools.

In August 2016, the district is scheduled to open a new elementary school east of Interstate 75 off Polo Club Boulevard and another off Georgetown Road. In August 2017, a sixth public high school, on Winchester Road, will open.

The school board gave the committee several goals in redistricting, including socioeconomic balance, having students attend the schools closest to their homes, and reducing overcrowding. Committee members quickly found the goals can conflict.

The committee has discussed balancing numbers of low-income students in a given school, having students attend schools close to their homes and curbing overcrowding.

"We're looking at redrawing lines in all of Fayette County in all of the schools," Stein said. "We are not focusing on one area. We are not focusing on one school or one neighborhood."

Wellington is designated in the state's testing system as distinguished and high-performing. Morris is concerned by a discussion at the committee's Dec. 4 meeting that he thought indicated families on his street could be reassigned to Picadome or Southern elementaries.

Southern is considered a "needs improvement" school. A reassignment to Picadome, another high-achieving school, would require longer travel times, he said. Residents would have to pass three elementary schools — Clays Mill, Wellington and Stonewall — on the way to Picadome. Morris said his wife, Lissa, has written to Stein and Love.

"Wellington is the closest school to us," he said. "We love Wellington. We don't want our kids to go to a school that's not a good performing school. My wife is beside herself, worried about this."

The neighbors also want to stay assigned to Jessie Clark Middle School and Lafayette High School.

Elsewhere in Lexington, a group of residents from the Stuart Hall neighborhood has been active since summer. They wear matching red T-shirts as a show of solidarity.

Some Stuart Hall neighbors have been upset that their homes are assigned to Breckinridge Elementary, which is classified as needs improvement/progressing, instead of the closer Athens-Chilesburg Elementary, which is classified as distinguished/progressing and high performing.

The frequent redistricting meetings, open to the public, have become increasingly crowded. YouTube videos of the meetings are posted on the district's website.

Because the audience can't make comments during the meetings, people send online comments to the district, and district officials share them with committee members and publish them online without names.

One comment made reference to Lexington's real-estate market slowing while the redistricting committee develops a plan.

"You people have lost your minds," one comment said.

"Homes are not selling because people are waiting to see where this all shakes out ... Don't try to improve test scores by shuffling kids around. Even a mental midget can figure out you are not improving anything."

Stein said he also had heard from residents of the Copperfield subdivision.

"Having a 25-year history with Clays Mill Elementary, Beaumont Middle and Dunbar High School, I urge the committee to re-examine and keep Copperfield subdivision within the current school boundaries," a comment said. "Moving our subdivision to another school would increase hardships on families and that does not help the children, who should be the complete focus."

Several people commented online about the possibility that the Masterson Station neighborhood could be moved from Leestown Middle to Winburn Middle, including one who said, "This is the most insane plan I have heard."

Parents in the Chilesburg neighborhood have expressed concern that they might be assigned to Crawford Middle School, classified by the state as a needs improvement/progressing school, instead of Edythe J. Hayes, a school classified as proficient/progressing.

Stein said he was asking people who were concerned about redistricting "to please come to our meetings to watch the process, to see how committed our members are."

He said people who come to meetings understand that redistricting is "a hard thing to do."

The committee has discussed which homes are assigned to specific high schools and middle schools and how redistricting might affect that. The committee began Dec. 4 to discuss which homes are assigned to specific elementary schools and how that might change.

"So many of our neighborhood schools are overpopulated from the get-go," Stein said, "and Wellington is one of them."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader