Fayette redistricting committee may not move students for economic balance, chairman says

Alan Stein
said his work is done. It's up to the board now.
Alan Stein said his work is done. It's up to the board now. Courtesy SteinGroup

One of several guiding principles for the Fayette County redistricting committee is to balance the economic diversity of students in every school.

But after four hours of discussion on that topic in the last several days, redistricting committee chairman Alan Stein said Tuesday he did not know if the committee would move any students to achieve socioeconomic balance.

RELATED STORY: Public engagement firm to help Fayette Schools determine criteria for hiring new superintendent

"I wouldn't want to speculate on that yet," Stein said. "I think there's a sentiment to not do it. I think there's a sentiment to absolutely do it. There's a third sentiment that says, 'Let's do it a little bit and disrupt as few people and families as we can.'"

Stein said in an interview he doesn't know where the committee "will land."

"The only thing I can tell you for sure is that there is no appetite whatsoever for wholesale long-distance busing to achieve socioeconomic diversity. Absolutely none."

"It is critical for all of our community members to hear that we are not talking about busing students from one end of the county to another. We are looking at whether we can provide a better balance in some cases by slightly adjusting attendance boundaries," Stein said in an email to families Tuesday night.

Stein, in an interview, said socioeconomic balance is "the most difficult" of all the redistricting principles to achieve and that committee members are going to have to decide what's most important.

Guiding principles include projected fall 2018 enrollment, transportation costs, allowing students to attend neighborhood schools and achieving socioeconomic balance. School board members have said that no one guiding principle is more important than the others.

The 20-plus member committee of parents, teachers, principals, and business and community leaders is working to redraw attendance boundaries in preparation for the openings of two new elementary schools in fall 2016 and a new high school in fall 2017. The committee expects to complete drafting school attendance zones no later than the first of April and present them to the school board for approval.

Reducing school crowding, trying to assign families to nearby schools and also achieving a balance of socioeconomic diversity is no easy task, Stein said in the email to families.

In 2013-14, 13 schools or programs in Fayette County had heavy concentrations of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch.

Another 13 schools had a majority or more of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch. Five schools had very few students receiving free and reduced-priced lunch.

Schools with high concentrations of poverty also often have low academic achievement. Some parents have said they don't want their children assigned to low-achieving schools.

FILE: See the percentage of students at Fayette County's schools who were deemed needy and qualified for free or reduced-price lunches

"Our conversation tonight was critical in the overall process because all committee members had an opportunity to express their thoughts about the value of this particular guiding principle," Stein said in the email Tuesday.

"Our hope is that we can come back on Thursday with the information we shared tonight and really dig into how we might address this particular guiding principle in the context of our other charges," he said. The redistricting committee meets at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at the district's Central Office on East Main Street.

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School principal Betsy Rains, a member of the redistricting committee, said "I do think diversity is important ... I also think that kids want to go to school in their neighborhoods. I think we need to consider that."

Just moving kids to high-performing schools doesn't mean that they are going to be successful, she said.

Committee member Astarre Gudino, who represents the Human Rights Commission, said she thinks the committee can make changes that don't involve busing children across town.

Gudino said while the conversation appears to be moving in a positive direction in terms of socioeconomic balance, she does have concerns "we won't get it done."

Ron Langley, who represents the Fayette Equity Council on the redistricting committee, said he hopes the committee can come to a consensus.

"We know we are going to make people unhappy. I'm guessing there are going to be committee members that are going to be unhappy or not particularly satisfied with our final recommendations," Langley said.

He said at some earlier public forums he heard families say that they were afraid that their property values would decline if their homes were assigned to certain schools.

Langley said he's heard that if some neighborhoods are reassigned, families will take their children out of public schools and send them to private schools.

"People can take kids to private schools or they can move them out of the district or do whatever they want with them. But that shouldn't be something we spend a lot of time worrying about. We have to use the guiding principles to come up with the best plan we can recommend," he said.

Stein said families' concerns over property values are not going to influence him.

"Every family has to make its own priority and value judgments," he said.

According to survey results released Tuesday by the Lexington-Bluegrass Association of Realtors among registered voters in Fayette County and LBAR's membership, some residents in Fayette County have chosen to delay buying or selling a home as a result of the redistricting process.

In a news release, LBAR officials said 74 percent of LBAR members with active listings in Fayette County who responded to a survey said that at least some of their clients have mentioned the redistricting process in their recent conversations. Thirty-nine percent of all LBAR members who responded to the survey reported that at least one client delayed a real estate transaction as a result of the process, a proportion that rises to 50 percent among Realtors with active listings in Fayette County.

Countywide, 59 percent of registered voters said they will stay in their houses "no matter what" happens in redistricting. But a majority of voters with school-age children expressed a willingness to move into a different school district pending the outcome of redistricting, a news release from LBAR said.

"Fayette County's housing market is improving, but our survey work shows that a number of residents have chosen to put off buying or selling a home as a result of the uncertainty in the redistricting process," LBAR President Larry Freels said. "Several hundred homes that could have been sold in the last few months were not, as short-term uncertainty delays life-changing decisions for some residents."

Results for the voter survey were based on a telephone survey of 387 registered voters in Fayette County from Dec. 22-23. Results of the LBAR members survey were based on an invitation-only online survey of 671 active registered Realtors from Jan.12-14.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader