Dancing on the third rail

The third rail of school board service is thought to be engaging in the the process of redistricting elementary school attendance zones.

During my previous service on the committee, we successfully kicked this can down the road without fear of touching the third rail. Some schools were oversubscribed, but we were still in the midst of a program to rebuild our schools. Whenever the rebuilding project is done, we would redistrict. I left the school committee in 2007 without facing the issue head-on.

Now I find myself at the tail end of a redistricting process that is coming before the school committee. An advisory committee has worked for the past year to come up with a plan that can be presented to the school committee for approval.

They have done good work. They started by moving the fixed lines, which met with objections from people who would have been moved into another sending zone. The committee went on to develop a far more conservative approach using buffer zones that fuzz the existing lines. They also grandfather current students, keeping children in their current schools, and keep siblings in the same school.

It is the job of the school committee to review and approve a new map. I am only one member, but I am bringing some key values and principles into my decision making process. Here’s what I am looking for, in no particular order.

  • We need to respect our history. People love their neighborhood and love their school. While a bold plan that starts from scratch may provide the best theoretical result, it disregards the personal connections of friends and neighbors. Thus, a plan that makes minimal changes for families of our students is preferable to an elegant system that reassigns a significant number of children.
  • We need to be grounded in fact. We cannot make difficult decisions based on speculation, or accept assertions as fact without supplemental evidence.
  • We must be fair. We are asking people to give up a guaranteed place at a school. We can’t take this lightly, and we should honor and respect this fact. As we move forward, we should strive to apply our decisions equitably and consistently.
  • We must be reasonable. The standards we apply to the process must make sense.
  • We have seven excellent elementary schools. Though they have somewhat different flavors, the town has deliberately created equity in programs and quality. There is no school that is demonstrably better than the others, there is no bad school, and our decisions merely move children from one good school to another.

When the fifth draft of the plan came before us, it was a good plan. However, there were portions that could be improved to conform to the principles I have for the new map. I thought it would be reasonable to make some adjustments to the proposed lines based on proximity to schools and walking patterns. I also thought that reasonableness and fairness permits moving homes into a buffer zone, but that people moved from one school to a buffer shouldn’t be removed from the buffers into a new school zone one year later.

Most of my thoughts were incorporated into the advisory committee’s Redistricting Map 6D.  The advisory committee expanded and improved on my view of reasonableness. They looked at homes across Summer Street from the Pierce Schol, and saw the wisdom of removing them from the Peirce-Stratton buffer zone.

As it stands today, the map meets the reasonableness standard. It respects our history. It could be tweaked, but it’s a solid plan that can move us to the next step. The next step doesn’t fix these lines in cement, any more than the existing lines are immovable. Next fall, we need to write the ground rules that govern student assignment in the buffer zones. When we implement the map, with our new rules, we will generate considerable data that we must use to evaluate the successes and challenges of the new policy.

That said, map 6D does not meet my fairness standard in one respect. After extensive conversations to people in Buffer H (currently in the Brackett district, to be placed in the Brackett-Bishop buffer), I think the plan for Buffer B (and two other buffers) doesn’t meet my fairness standard. We are asking the people of Buffer H to give up their place at the front of the line for a Brackett seat for the common good of the town. Some residents of Buffer B (at the bottom of the Spring Street hill, south of Menotomy Rocks Park) have requested to be moved into the Brackett district. I am happy to give them the opportunity to choose Brackett from within a buffer, but I don’t think it’s fair to put them ahead of the folks being moved from Brackett to a buffer when students are assigned to a school. Similarly, I think it is unfair for folks who moved into this buffer to lose their rights to attend Bishop School. Right now, I would like to see this problem resolved before approving the map.

I have been spending considerable time listening to folks who care about this issue, and seeking out the opinion of folks I respect, as I consider how to vote on redistricting. I write this four days before the scheduled vote on the redistricting proposal. My mind is open to new evidence, new arguments, and thoughtful challenges to my values and principles.

I can’t say enough good things about the folks who have engaged in the process. I have had many thoughtful conversations about redistricting, all have been respectful. Whether we have changed our viewpoint, or agreed to disagree, we have improved the final product as a result of our conversations. Maybe I have been dancing on the third rail, but hard work and lots of listening have reduced the voltage considerably. Thanks to all who have made this possible.

Addendum (June 13, 2012): The redistricting subcommittee had posted its final draft (map 7) on the Arlington Public Schools redistricting website.