Friday, August 31, 2007

Fayette County Elementary School Redistricting Thoughts

I'm posting the opinion column I have on the Fayette Front Page (FFP) below regarding Elementary School redistricting. Before I give you a little background (for those who don't visit the FFP or pay much attention to other newspapers), I'd like to send mega-kudos out to all the parents who volunteered to tackle this difficult task. These brave folks are taking quite a bit of time from their already busy schedules to attempt to redraw elementary school districts. They know that someone is going to be unhappy with them when they finish.... but they care enough about their children and Fayette County to brave the darts that will come.

Here's a little background. The BOE gets lambasted every time they redistrict. Unfortunately, it's necessary to periodically redraw the lines as population grows and shrinks, and as new schools come on line. It's understandable that parents would be upset. Some bought houses in a specific area just so their children could go to certain schools. Sometimes best friends the kids went to school with through elementary get redistricted to a different middle or high school. I don't need to cover all the negatives, you can come up with those on your own I'm sure!

The BOE decided to hire a consultant to make the process as "scientific" as possible. Along with the consultant they've put together a group of parents, one from each school elementary through high, to work with the consulting group to redraw the lines. Makes a world of sense. You have a specialized guide and parents who know the county. Plus, there are members of the board of education helping. I thought about it and couldn't come up with a better way to do it, although there may be.

The newspapers jumped in the BOE's case about the cost of the consultant. They reported incorrect inflated numbers which had a lot of people screaming. I raised an eyebrow at the real numbers, but in thinking about it, I want the best for Fayette County. We are the best of the best and our kids deserve the best. The costs are not outrageous and the BOE is doing all they can to keep the costs down from what I've seen. Chances are if they had tried it a different way they'd be slammed by some anyway.

This background info is getting longer and longer, isn't it? I'll try to move quickly here...

Based on experience, the consultant wanted the nuts and bolts meetings to be private, no press. There's going to be a lot of changing data presented, plus there's going to be a lot of back and forth. One of the local newspapers pitched a fit and now we're all having to sit through hours of discussion that aren't newsworthy. We could read the published minutes after their meetings and then pick up the phone after the meeting, or stop by the BOE, ask questions and write a meaningful report of what's happening.

After it's all over we, the press, would get every bit of data they used. The group isn't even the final decision-maker in the process. They're going to give a minimum of three maps to the School Board. The Board will choose one, and may even tweak the one they choose.

OK, hope that's enough of an overview! Probably too much of an overview, right? Ah well... can't please everyone, and sometimes can't please anyone! Here's the opinion column from the FFP:

I happen to agree with the Consultant (but possibly for different reasons) that the committee should be allowed to meet in private during the nuts and bolts portion of the redistricting process.

If you watch the videos of the meeting, you'll see that there's nothing sneaky or clandestine in their rational for preferring to keep the process behind closed doors while they're parsing data, making changes, moving lines, discussing options.

Coming in the side door of the building is just as public as the front door. When coming in the side door was mentioned, it was simply for convenience, not to hide the committee. After all, the first meeting was open and most of the committee of parents were there to be filmed.
Here's why I think the next part of the process shouldn't include the press or members of the public.

One, they're going to keep minutes and will be sharing them with the respective schools and they'll also be posted on the School Board's website for the world to see.

Two, it's already a difficult process. The parent representatives are going to be under a tremendous amount of pressure from their friends and peers without having them sitting there staring at them while they try to make decisions that hopefully will be the best for the vast majority. Someone is going to be unhappy when the lines are redrawn no matter how the do it or where the lines end up.

Three, we've already seen that things get blown way out of proportion when incomplete information is reported. The press tain't perfect, neither... mistakes are printed as facts then retracted a week later in small print on an inside page. The damage is done, tempers flare, parents get protective...

Four, they're going to have to make their final suggestions (which the Board will have to approve) completely public at the end. We'll get to see everything.
I could list a few other reasons, but those will work for now.

All that said, now that one of the local newspapers threatened to sue and the Board of Education chose to open the process rather than litigate (although they certainly had the legal right to keep the process behind closed doors... it's a citizen committee with paid employees working together... no elected officials) we will be there along with the other local media. We'll film, you can watch and make your own decisions. Not sure how this will go as they're breaking up into four groups... but we'll certainly do our darnedest!

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