School board is being transparent in redistricting efforts

The Williamsburg-James City County School Board is in the midst of doing a smart, good thing.

For years, we’ve known about the need to redistrict the middle schools to get students into the new James Blair Middle School when it opens in September.

There have also been many meetings and conversations about overcrowding at the high schools and what to do about it; redistricting is one of several potential solutions.

After collecting plenty of community input — and a little handwringing — the board settled on its five things to keep in mind when drawing new school boundaries: utilization, proximity, socioeconomic status, neighborhood concept and longevity.

They hired consulting firm Cooperative Strategies this year to draw new attendance zone maps, and those maps were presented at this week’s board meeting. The maps were on display Thursday evening at Warhill High School, and several School Board members, staff and the consultants were on hand.

Over the course of three hours, about 80 people came through to see the maps, ask questions and listen to a presentation.

I can’t decide whether that was a good turnout or frighteningly low for a district with just more than 11,000 students.

This is the time for parents to weigh in with their concerns about the maps and ask their questions — now, before final decisions are made.

There hasn’t been much fuss about middle school redistricting — perhaps because it was never in doubt. Or perhaps as then-candidate Jim Kelly told the editorial board when we met with him before the November election, middle school is so fraught with change and drama that parents were just rolling with it.

But high school apparently is another matter.

At Tuesday’s School Board meeting, four members said they were opposed to high school redistricting and two said they thought a decision should be put off for at least a year. But chairwoman Kyra Cook decided to keep it on the agenda, at least for another month.

Board member Julie Hummel made perhaps the sagest observation when she said she’d like to keep high school redistricting on the table because the School Board simply can’t keep putting off making a decision about what to do about overcrowding at the schools.

Keep in mind, redistricting is just one of several options that could alleviate overcrowding at the high schools: we could build additional classrooms at existing schools; we could add trailers; we could build a new school, but the projected enrollment numbers don’t seem to support that option. Some believe shifting away from the current block scheduling system would do the trick. Or we could do nothing.

The options — once you eliminate the short-term fix of redistricting and building a new school — are worth exploring.

But I hope we don’t decide to do nothing.

Good schools are one of the bedrocks on which a community is built, and folks here have long been rightfully proud of our schools.

We all have a stake in whichever fix the School Board finally decides to apply to this challenge. We may pay higher taxes or learn to live again with trailers, or we might have to get used to talking about something other than schools as a point of community pride.

I applaud the School Board for keeping redistricting on the table. I applaud them for their transparency in holding open community forums on their plans and putting in front of citizens information that might not make them happy. That’s the essence of open government.

If you missed the presentation at Warhill, a second redistricting community session is scheduled for 5-8:30 p.m. Dec. 5 at Lafayette High School with the same format. I hope to see you there.

Bellows is editor of The Virginia Gazette. You can reach her by phone at 757-345-2347, at pbellows@vagazette.com or @peggybellows.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
45°