Superintendent's Boundary Plan Panned at Hearing


(Friday, January 18, 2008 1:30 PM EST)

Superintendent Robert Smith's plan to shift more than 600 students among Arlington's elementary schools to ease overcrowding drew wide opposition in the first of what will be several public forums on the proposal.

“This process is in jeopardy of destroying the trust and confidence” of the community for the school system, said Kate Mesches, who was one of nearly 40 speakers on the proposal at the Jan. 17 School Board meeting.

Mesches, who represented McKinley Elementary School on the Elementary Capacity and Crowding Committee (ECCC), said she was “disappointed,” “overwhelmed” and “angry” that Smith essentially had thrown out the committee's work and cobbled together his own boundary plan.

She was not alone.

Clare Hessler, a Nottingham Elementary parent, said Smith's recommendation “deserves a failing grade” because it doesn't solve the crowding problem despite moving so many students around.

“Our young children should not be made to pay for poor planning and the mistakes of adults,” Hessler said.

Speaker Gary Singler called Smith's proposal “the nuclear option.”

“It's horrific, and the fallout will last for years,” he predicted. “How does dividing neighborhoods make any sense?”

Singler may have got off the line of the night. Noting that, in some cases boundary changes were being proposed based on ZIP codes, he said: “I don't want my mailman deciding where my kid goes to school.”

The superintendent sat stoically as speaker after speaker assailed the proposal. There were a few breaks; occasionally, a critic would say it was the School Board's fault for letting the redistricting process get out of hand, not Smith's.

But most took aim at the superintendent's proposal. Many wondered why the effort to lessen crowding at a few North Arlington elementary schools had suddenly morphed into a countywide shuffle affecting hundreds.

“The community doesn't want this plan - the community expects a more restrained approach,” said Erik Maskelony, Glebe Elementary School's representative to the ECCC. Smith's proposal, Maskelony said, shows “disregard for the community and common sense.”

Smith's proposal calls for shifting more than 500 students from their current school to another, and to move programs that will affect the placement of another 100 or so students. Among the 22 elementary schools in the county, only three would be unaffected by boundary changes.

The proposed moves would affect about 7 percent of the elementary-school student body countywide.

Smith has proposed grandfathering in all rising fourth- and fifth-graders and some of their younger siblings, allowing them to complete their educations at their current elementary schools. And he recommends establishment of a permanent advisory committee on enrollment issues.

In a brief presentation to School Board members before the public comment began, Smith did not defend his plan, but talked briefly about the overall quality of the system.

“Regardless of which school Arlington students attend, they will receive an excellent education,” the superintendent said.

School Board members are slated to take more public testimony on Jan. 22 and 23 and hold a work session on the boundary issue on Jan. 24. Their next formal meeting will be on Jan. 31.

Critics of the proposal are taking their case outside the School Board hearing room and into the community. The morning after the Jan. 17 hearing, parents at Ashlawn Elementary School held a protest at the school drawing about 100 people.

“The plan will break up our loving community in a big way,” said Carol Schadelbauer, vice president of the Ashlawn PTA. “We're hopeful that we will see a different plan presented that will be less destructive to our school.”

Her son, Evan, a fourth-grader, was equally outraged.

“I'm just upset that a lot of people will have to leave the school,” he said.

If Smith's proposal were adopted, Ashlawn would lose approximately 150 of its current student body, including about 25 percent of its minority population.

As for the process so far, impressions at the protest mirrored those at the hearing.

“I've seen better justice in Baghdad,” said Steve Stewart, a member of the Ashlawn community who served in the U.S. military in Iraq.

Laura, Ethan and Ryan Ermovick were among those who protested Superintendent Robert Smith's boundary proposals as they walked to Ashlawn Elementary School on Jan. 18.
(Photo by Kristen Armstrong)

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