W-JCC looks ahead toward redistricting

WILLIAMSBURG — Shenice Dawes is hesitant about the prospect of her daughter Amariya attending Berkeley Middle School in a few years.

"There's just too many kids there," Dawes said.

Dawes' gut assessment is correct. The school is at 113 percent capacity, based on figures provided by the school district and the state Department of Education. And many of those students are among the district's most needy; nearly half qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

But the new middle school being built at the James Blair administrative site on Ironbound Road will ease the crowding at Berkeley. Blair is slated to open in September 2018, and on Sept. 20 the Williamsburg-James City County School Board awarded the $21.8 million construction contract for the first phase of the project to Oyster Point Construction.

The questions now are: Who will attend the new school, and what will the domino effect be?

This spring the board will begin redrawing the zoning lines to determine where children attend school. And board members are bracing themselves for the process.

The last two times W-JCC schools redistricted, the process was a months-long, emotional ordeal, according to school board minutes, Gazette archives and interviews with former board members. Board members sought to meet constituents' demands while trying to produce a final zoning plan that met the needs of the district.

"Redistricting is the single most difficult challenge for any school board," said former W-JCC board member John Alewynse. "I'm tempted to use the word 'odious' to describe it."

Past processes

In 2006, the district turned rezoning over to the community. A committee developed options and the community voted on the final zoning map. The board made changes to the map selected by the community. Alewynse described the process as "fraught with difficulties of various sorts."

So with the opening in 2010 of J. Blaine Blayton Elementary and Lois Hornsby Middle School, board members opted to hire a consultant. The district paid $49,000 to EDULOG, a Montana-based consulting firm specializing in school bus routing and redistricting, to develop rezoning maps.

According to minutes from an April 2010 board meeting, the process began with three goals in mind:

• Proximity: students should live within a 30-minute bus ride of school.

♦ Diversity: every school's free and reduced-price lunch percentage should be within 7.5 to 10 percentage points of the district average.

♦ Capacity: every school should be between 85 and 88 percent of effective capacity.

The two goals of proximity and diversity soon came into conflict. EDULOG's first set of maps would have bused students across the county, achieving greater economic diversity in each school, but dividing neighborhoods and creating long bus routes.

EDULOG suggested busing students 17 miles up I-64 from the James River Elementary zone to the Norge Elementary zone.

"It looked like something a bunch of drunks had gotten together and come up with it," Alewynse said.

But current board chairman Jim Kelly said the board in 2009 got what they asked for.

"One of the scenarios (the board requested) was to make schools all have even capacity and make every school the same on free and reduced (price) lunch," Kelly said. "If you give them that direction, they are going to come up with something that looks like a mosaic."

In December 2009, the board rejected the first set of maps for redistricting the elementary schools and told EDULOG to focus on proximity over diversity.

EDULOG submitted the final set of maps for board approval in April 2010, just months before students would begin attending the new schools. Board members were still unhappy with the result, and former Powhatan representative Joe Fuentes changed the maps to adjust for capacity. His changes split the Powhatan Secondary neighborhood between two elementary schools and sparked outcry over perceived meddling and a lack of transparency.

The board approved the new middle school zoning maps in a unanimous 7-0 vote, but Kelly and former board member Denise Koch opposed the elementary maps, which passed 5-2.

Kelly said if the board hired professionals to do the redistricting, board members should not adjust the maps themselves.

"When we get the maps back from the consultant, we should make minimal changes and not get into the weeds," Kelly said on Sept. 22. "If we are paying the consultants for advice we need to make sure we do not make changes unilaterally."

Alewynse disagreed.

"We would have been better off if we just paid Joe the $50,000," he said. "If we had done what EDULOG wanted us to do, the result would have been grotesque."

Alewynse said although the board set out with good intentions, they did not meet one of their key objectives: balancing the number of poor students among the schools.

"At no point did anyone say, 'To hell with diversity,' but as a matter of practical necessity, the diversity objective was not met in all respects or as well in many respects as we might have hoped," he said.

The stated goal of the board in 2009 was to keep all of the schools within 7.5 to 10 percent of the district average for students receiving free and reduced-price lunch.

While many of the district's schools hover around the district's current average of 33 percent, disparities between some of the schools are extreme.

James River Elementary School has the most poor students, with 65 percent qualifying. Matoaka Elementary, Lois Hornsby Middle School and Jamestown High School all have roughly 19 percent of students qualifying.

Kelly said next year's rezoning is likely to affect only middle school students.

The disparities between the free-and-reduced-price lunch numbers at the three middle schools are likely to spark similar attempts to create a more equitable balance. Berkeley has 46 percent of students who qualify, Toano has 28 percent, and Hornsby has 18 percent.

Most students in W-JCC schools spend about 30 minutes riding the bus each way to school.

Elementary school bus routes average 28 minutes, middle school routes average 34 minutes and high school bus routes average 35 minutes, according to data provided by the district's transportation department.

Clara Byrd Baker students have the shortest average routes, at 19 minutes. Warhill High School students spend the most time on a bus, with an average route time of 41 minutes.

Candidates weigh in

The board will have a new face next spring when the rezoning process begins. Lisa Ownby and Dot Matthews are both running for the Powhatan district seat currently held by Mary Minor. Minor became a board member in February after Fuentes resigned.

Ownby said when she helped with the redistricting efforts in 2006, she made sure neighborhoods were not divided.

"We are a small town and generally identify ourselves by neighborhoods. I will work to keep neighborhoods together," Ownby said.

Ownby also said the board should make sure people who got redistricted in 2009 are not redistricted again, and she opposes hiring consultants.

"We have capability within central office. An outside consultant is a waste of money," she said. "We need that money in the classrooms."

Matthews is concerned about equal opportunities among the schools. She feels busing is not appropriate for younger children, but it may be necessary for middle school and high school students in order to achieve greater equity between schools.

"I sense that there are some issues in our school district with equality of opportunities by school, and that is one thing I am very interested in," Matthews said.

Matthews also opposes hiring a consultant.

Regardless of the board's makeup, Kelly said the key to the process is transparency. He said people rarely get as emotional as they do when someone is making decisions that affect their children, and it was important for the board to be up front with the public about the board's priorities.

Vice-chairwoman Kyra Cook was hesitant to comment on what she described as a "really complicated" process until she has a better understanding of all the factors.

"I observed the board go through the process last time and saw how arduous and time consuming and complicated the process can be," Cook said.

Acting Superintendent Olwen Herron has been part of rezoning in other districts. She anticipates proximity to school and the capacity level of the schools being the deciding factors.

"It is more about about the capacity of schools and feeder patterns," Herron said. "I haven't been in a system where free and reduced (price) lunch has been a factor. But it is really for the board — it will be what they want to consider."

Herron said the district should hire an outside firm, due to the complexity of the process.

"I don't think we have the expertise to do it well," Herron said. "I think when you bring in an expert from the outside you get an approach just based on the numbers. Honestly again it is a board decision."

Alewynse said he did not envy the board as they began the rezoning process, and he was glad he no longer had to make such decisions.

"How is it going to play out this time? God only knows," Alewynse said.

McKinnon can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

Capacity:

DJ Montague 74%

Warhill High School 82%

James River Elementary 85%

Lafayette High School 92%

Stonehouse Elementary 93%

Matoaka Elementary 95%

Lois Hornsby Middle 98%

Norge Elementary 100%

Toano Middle 102%

Matthew Whaley 104%

J Blaine Blayton 105%

Clara Byrd Baker 106%

Jamestown High School 108%

Rawls Byrd Elementary 110%

Berkeley 113%

Source: W-JCC spokesperson Betsy Overkamp-Smith, capacity numbers cited in WJCC's 2016 budget and enrollment figures for 2015-16 from the state Department of Education.

Free and reduced-price lunch percentage:

Lois Hornsby Middle 18%

Matoaka Elementary 19%

Jamestown High School 19%

Stonehouse Elementary 28%

Toano Middle 28%

Warhill High School 29%

DJ Montague Elementary 35%

Lafayette High School 36%

Clara Byrd Baker Elementary 37%

J Blaine Blayton Elementary 37%

Norge Elementary 38%

Matthew Whaley 44%

Rawls Byrd Elementary 45%

Berkeley Middle School 46%

James River Elementary 65%

Source: Enrollment figures for 2015-16 from the state Department of Education.

Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Mary Minor as board chairwoman. 

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