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Winchester

Parents question Winchester school redistricting plan

Despite vocal opposition to what even officials called an imperfect plan, a divided Winchester School Committee has approved a map-based model for shuffling hundreds of the town’s youngest students. That model, known as Scenario 1, will permanently shift school boundary lines, changing the school assignments for as many as 215 of the town’s 2,219 elementary students next September.

Parents are already flooding the superintendent with e-mails, requesting details about where their children will be assigned next year. In response, school officials are preparing a directory of school assignments they hope will be available to residents by the Thanksgiving break.

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The School Committee’s decision to adopt a map-based redistricting plan reignited critics’ suspicions that the board had simply paid lip service to the alternative proposals submitted by parents.

“It appears that the skeptics . . . were right and we were just being played,” said Dennis France, whose son will be moved from Lincoln to Lynch under the approved redistricting plan. “The School Committee had a chance to reunite Winchester, but they chose a plan that impacts 200 families for up to six years, rather than a plan that would impact 100 families for only one year. . . . This is an extremely unfortunate travesty.”

The School Committee voted 4 to 1 Nov. 5 to embrace the map-based plan, which will require many youngsters who now travel up to a half-mile to their neighborhood school to travel nearly 2 miles to a different school. Christian Nixon, who at the outset of the meeting voiced preference for a hybrid redistricting plan that would incorporate both flexibility and a traditional map model, cast the sole dissenting vote.

The board’s decision came as a surprise to many of the 70 or so parents who attended the meeting. At the series of School Committee meetings and the public hearing that was held in advance of the vote, an overwhelming majority of parents, along with School Superintendent William McAlduff Jr., had expressed preference for a parent-sponsored plan that would have allowed for flexibility rather than redrawing hard boundary lines.

“At this point, my bias is toward the K-flex model,” McAlduff had told the School Committee at its Oct. 23 meeting after recommending that the board consider in its final deliberations both the K-flex model and two map-based scenarios, including the one ultimately adopted.  “I believe this [K-flex] model can provide the district with an effective tool for meeting the homeroom target goals developed by the School Committee, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of the current distribution of elementary [students],” McAlduff said.

Under the K-flex model, one of five models presented to the School Committee by Winchester parents on Oct. 2, the district would have moved kindergarten students out of crowded schools and into empty classrooms in buildings that are under capacity. As a result, some kindergarten students would have been assigned to a school outside their neighborhoods. Those students would then return to their home schools for the remainder of their elementary years.

K-flex is a “tool for managing enrollment challenges . . . but [is] not a redistricting plan,” said School Committee member Cindy Bohne, noting that the impact of the K-flex proposal would be “constrained, unfortunately, by the number of kindergartners enrolled each year at each school.”

According to Bohne, only a map-based plan would allow the district to efficiently manage its capital resources and address a fundamental problem facing Winchester: “We have had, and continue to have, an enrollment distribution imbalance across town,” Bohne said, noting that the town’s two largest schools — Lynch and Vinson-Owen, with a combined enrollment capacity of 900 students — are on the west side of town, where only 500 or so elementary students live.

In the final minutes of the Nov. 5 meeting, Nixon proposed an amendment that would have required the superintendent to examine the logistics, selection rules, and costs of implementing a K-flex plan beginning as early as the 2014-2015 school year. Under Nixon’s amendment, K-flex would not have superseded Scenario 1, but rather would have been a tool that the superintendent could use to improve the sustainability of the approved map-based plan.

Although several School Committee members expressed interest in exploring K-flex, Nixon’s proposal failed for lack of a second after Michael Schindelman, School Committee vice chairman, voiced concern that adopting the amendment would be “mixing the message. The decision becomes unclear and what happens a year afterward becomes very muddied.”

The school district has been working toward adopting a redistricting plan for about a year, spurred by the pressing need to manage ballooning enrollment and to ensure that the new Vinson-Owen Elementary School opens in September 2013 with enough students to satisfy the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which is paying 40 percent of the cost of the $28 million project.

The number of public school students in Winchester has swelled 25 percent over the last decade. Today, there are 4,357 students in the district, and that figure is expected to continue to rise until 2015. Originally, the School Committee had intended to adopt a redistricting plan by mid-June, but that timeline fell apart as parents raised concerns about the map-based proposal that was recommended in May by the Redistricting Advisory Committee and embraced by the superintendent. Under that proposal, as many as 112 students would have been transferred to new schools next year.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.
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