Speakers blast ‘blended’ option

School redistricting and parents don't always blend well. The Henrico County School Board learned that tonight during a public hearing about the redistricting process that will set boundaries for the new Kaechele Elementary School in Short Pump and impact other schools in the region.

Most of the 42 speakers who addressed the board during the hearing at Hermitage High School made it clear: they don't like the school system's "blended" redistricting option.

They – and a vast majority of the overall attendees – expressed strong opposition to the option, which was created by school officials in recent weeks in an attempt to combine portions of the two primary redistricting options under consideration.

School Board Chairwoman Diana Winston had sought a blended option in part to determine if West Broad Street could be used as a dividing line for elementary school boundaries. But the option devised by school planners would involve moving too many students for questionable reasons while pushing Gayton Elementary School – currently well below capacity – more than 200 students above capacity, a number of speakers said.

Those who opposed the blended option also were critical of the process that led to its creation, arguing that it was not subjected to the same rigorous process of consideration by the 24-member volunteer redistricting committee as were the committee's other options.

"You have a luxury to plan below capacity for schools now and in the next 4 years by choosing either Option 1 or 2," said speaker Wendell Gore, a parent of Gayton Elementary School students. "The blended option does not allow that luxury. So why would you not take that opportunity?"

Winston began the hearing by acknowledging the opposition to the blended option, telling those in attendance that the outcome for Gayton would be unacceptable to the board, and that board members only would approve a plan that kept all elementary schools affected under capacity.

That seemed to allay concerns of many attendees, but it didn't prevent them from blasting the blended option anyway. Two speakers specifically asked the board to remove the option from consideration before or during its Dec. 13 work session. The board intends to adopt a boundary for Kaechele at its evening meeting that same day.

"I feel like I'm beating a dead horse, but let me try to put one more bullet in that horse if I can," speaker Terry James told the board, urging it to reject the option.

"The problem is, there are too many students south of Broad and not enough students north of Broad, and the new school is north of Broad because of anticipated development," speaker Patrick Barbier said to loud applause. "It's a bad option because it's based on bad policy. Make it right."

One speaker who did support the blended option was Liz Harden, whose neighborhood currently is in the Pemberton zone and would remain there as part of that option. The other two options, Harden said, would cut Pemberton's population to about 80 percent of its capacity and slice away families who devote significant volunteer hours to the school.

"If we lose such a large section of our support, it is likely that the PTA will not be able to continue these programs," Harden said.

Several speakers representing Ridge Elementary School had similar concerns, telling the board not to approve any plan that would move a significant portion of active volunteer families away in order to keep the Nottingham Green apartment community (and its 160 students) together at the school.

Speakers tonight who supported Option 1 said that that option would best satisfy the goals of the process by moving the fewest number of students (about 1,000) and keeping all affected schools under capacity through 2016. Those who voiced support for Option 2 did so primarily because it would send their students to the school preferred by the majority of their neighborhoods. A majority of the redistricting committee itself also supports Option 2.

The board will continue to accept citizen comments through Dec. 9 before voting on the matter Dec. 13. To comment, visit http://vovici.com/wsb.dll/s/b581g51f74.

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