Diversity, proximity among concerns mentioned at public hearing

Contact Reporterwwright@vagazette.com

Members of the Williamsburg-James City County district heard from more than 30 people this week as part of its redistricting process, which they hope will be finished by February of next year.

Some don’t want to see children moved from what they call “neighborhood schools.”

Others implored the board to consider making the district’s schools as diverse as possible, and still others asked the board to reconsider redistricting high schools at all. They preferred a long term plan to deal with the county’s growth.

Dozens filled the Stryker Center, and city staff opened an overflow room to accommodate others. Board members received more than 250 comments from the public and many more emails, chairwoman Kyra Cook said.

“We appreciate the robust public input thus far,” she said.

In July, board members unanimously voted to hire California-based firm Cooperative Strategies to redraw boundaries pertaining to the area’s middle and high schools.

Redistricting is necessary for the district’s middle schools. A new school, James Blair Middle, will help deal with growth in the county. Middle school boundaries will change, but the board is still mulling over changing maps for the district’s high schools.

City resident Beth Chambers urged the board to move differently than its predecessors, who she thinks focused too intently on appeasing homeowners’ associations when deciding on new redistricting maps.

“We really do have a problem, and it started back then,” she said, referring to recent redistricting efforts.

Buildings are intended to be 88 percent full, and in 2016-17 Lafayette was at that threshold. At 90 percent and 110 percent, both Lafayette and Jamestown were over capacity.

Danon Middleton, who filed in June to run against school board member Jim Kelly for his school board seat, implored Kelly and his colleagues on the board to consider not redistricting high schools.

“You’ll go from one overcrowded high school to three,” he said. “Rezoning creates more problems than it solves.”

Having grown up in Williamsburg-James City County school system decades ago, Donald Ferguson recalled the impact having diverse schools had on him even as a child. He urged the board to make socioeconomic diversity the chief most concern in its redistricting criteria.

Ferguson referred to segregation academies, private schools that popped up in the south in response to the 1954 Brown v. Board U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared public school segregation unconstitutional.

“What I was proud of was that we were fully integrated,” he said. “My friends in Richmond, they went to schools that were not, or they went to private schools.”

Kelly said his colleagues will consider each of the points they are hearing as they decide on redistricting criteria.

“We do have some difficult decisions to make going forward,” he said.

In the first of two October meetings, the School Board will take staff comments and comments from the public into account as it decides what specific concerns to relay to the consulting firm concerning redistricting.

At its second October meeting, the board will agree on guidance given to the consultant performing the redistricting work.

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

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