By NICK GRABBE
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
AMHERST - It isn't easy to move a third of Amherst's elementary students to different schools without upsetting some parents.
But the redistricting process, to take place next year, got support Friday from two key people: Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez and Select Board member Alisa Brewer, who was on the School Committee for five years.
Meanwhile, the public will have a chance to speak out about the proposal this week. The first public forum on the plan will take place at Mark's Meadow School Thursday at 7 p.m., and another will be at Crocker Farm on Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. The School Committee is scheduled to vote on the plan Oct. 27.
Speaking at a meeting of the committee charged with redrawing the district borders, Rodriguez said the process has been "purely data-driven and empirical" in its effort to equalize the percentages of children from low-income families in each school. The committee also has taken bus safety into account, and the changes "will disrupt communities as little as possible," he said.
"The more variables you throw into the equation, the harder it is to draw maps that are equitable and fair," he said.
Brewer said that equity should be the top priority-not the amount of time on buses, how many children have to change schools, or how easy it is for families to get there.
"This is going to happen, and we're going to make it work as best we can," she said.
The prompt for the redistricting is the closure of Mark's Meadow School next year. The proposed new map has mostly clear boundaries, with the exception of the East Hadley Road area. Right in the middle of the new Crocker Farm School district, 28 children living at The Boulders would attend Wildwood School, while about 47 at Mill Valley Estates and Hollister Apartments would attend Fort River.
Because many of these children are from low-income families and would be bused out of their neighborhoods, the plan "has the greatest impact with precisely the children we're trying to help," said James Oldham of East Hadley Road. He believes there should be a public forum.
These low-income families "are being set up as one population being treated differently from everyone else, and without that public meeting, this should not go forward," Oldham said.
Margaret Burland, of Mill Valley Estates, said children living there tend to form friendships only within their schools. "To change their school is huge," she said. "It's a bigger deal than with wealthier kids."
School Committee member Irv Rhodes said these parents "feel they're picked on, so we owe it to them to be as clear as possible about why this is occurring."
Lately, the map has been changed only to extend the Wildwood district to include all of Strong Street and some houses on High Street, because of transportation concerns.
Enrollment figures show that there are 41 fewer students in the elementary schools this year than had been projected.
UPDATE: Nick Grabbe has just alerted me to a change that occurred during the editing. Jim Oldham's quote was actually "There should be a public forum there, he said." He was meaning that public forums should take place in the apartment complexes off of East Hadley Road.