Redistricting process concludes with a compromise

Its first attempt at a redistricting compromise wasn’t a success, but the Henrico County School Board found that a second compromise solution fit much better.

The board voted unanimously Dec. 13 to adopt a redistricting plan that shifts the boundaries of 13 West End elementary schools while creating boundaries for the new Kaechele Elementary, which will open next fall. To craft the boundary map that it adopted (Option 3), the board followed Chairwoman Diana Winston’s suggestion during a work session earlier that day and merged the portion of Option 2 north of West Broad Street with the portion of Option 1 (Adjusted) south of West Broad Street.

The compromise plan “really provides a balance for relief and seems like a no-brainer,” Brookland District board member Beverly Cocke said during the work session.

The plan will move about 1,300 students to new schools in the fall, including the 425 who will begin at Kaechele. All but one of the affected schools (Ridge Elementary) will have student populations below their capacity.

Colonial Trail, Davis, Longan and Short Pump elementariness all will receive population relief as part of the redistricting plan. Rising fourth- and fifth-graders at all schools will be permitted to complete elementary school at their current schools should their parents provide transportation, while no current middle-school students will be affected by the changes.

The board opted to leave Ridge’s boundaries unchanged from their current design – something that a number of Ridge parents had requested. The school is among the most diverse in the county, with a significant blend of immigrant and low-income students; parents had argued that several redistricting proposals would have removed large segments of the school’s volunteers and PTA members from its community, thereby harming its students. One proposal also would have trimmed so many low-income students that the school likely would have lost its Title I funding.

The board intends to examine Ridge separately in the near future to determine how to address its needs, Winston said. She pointed to nearby Three Chopt Elementary, which is under capacity, as a school that could help alleviate its overcrowding.

Adoption of Option 3 moves a group of students from the Hampshire neighborhood from Rivers Edge Elementary to Shady Grove Elementary but keeps them together at Holman Middle School (which Hampshire students currently attend). The result will cause Holman to be at 101 percent of its capacity next year, while Pocahontas Middle also would be near capacity. Board members discussed a desire to relieve crowding at both schools by creating new course offerings at Short Pump Middle School, which is projected to be at just 73 percent of capacity next year.

Superintendent Pat Russo told the board that his staff would work to devise possibilities that might pull 200 or more students to Short Pump Middle from other middle schools.

The board’s vote concluded a rollercoaster final week of the redistricting process, which began Dec. 6 with more than 40 speakers addressing the board at a public hearing at Hermitage High School.

There, a majority expressed outrage at a proposed “blended” option that had been designed late last month by school planning officials at Winston’s request. She sought the option to learn whether portions of Option 1 and Option 2 could be combined and altered to use West Broad Street as a dividing line between school boundaries.

Speakers were upset that the blended option would have pushed Gayton Elementary more than 200 students over capacity. They also complained that the option had not been subjected to scrutiny by the 24-member committee of community volunteers who designed the other options. Board members agreed and removed the blended option from consideration within several days.

Last week, Winston said that school planners took undue criticism from the community for simply doing what she had asked. The fact that the blended option wasn’t feasible, she said, quickly became obvious to everyone involved, prompting the board to kill it.

“It didn’t take a rocket scientist – even Diana Winston could figure out that it wasn’t going to work,” Winston said. “So it is a very open process.”
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