rezoning public hearings

Maps showing some of the Richmond school rezoning options were on display during a public hearing at Bellevue Elementary on Nov. 25. Another special meeting was held on Monday before the board vote.

Richmond Public Schools has new school zones — for the most part.

Late Monday night, the Richmond School Board narrowly approved a rezoning proposal for the East End, South Side and West End, while delaying action on boundaries for schools in the city’s North Side. The approved plan does not include the combination of majority-white and majority-black school zones in the West End, or “pairing,” an idea that has been the most contentious aspect of the process.

“This is a step in the right direction,” School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page said after the 5-4 vote to approve what is officially called Proposal Y. “We have more work to do, but this is a first step.”

The board members who voted to approve the proposal were Page, who represents the 8th District, Liz Doerr of the 1st District, Scott Barlow of the 2nd District, Cheryl Burke of the 7th District and Linda Owen of the 9th District.

Voting against were Kenya Gibson of the 3rd District, Jonathan Young of the 4th District, Patrick Sapini of the 5th District and Felicia Cosby of the 6th District.

“I had hoped we’d be able to muster support for a bolder decision — and certainly one that addressed all parts of the city — but I’m grateful to the [Rezoning Advisory Committee] and the board for the important work they did to advance our rezoning goals in Proposal Y,” said Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras, who supported pairing schools, after Monday’s vote.

Overall, the changes affect roughly 1,500 students in every part of the city. About half of the students who will change schools are in elementary school zones. Elementary schools have the most overcrowding in the city, one of the main issues the board hoped to address.

The vote came after roughly five hours of board debate and a public hearing.

Here are answers to common questions about the plan and what it does and does not do.

Why did the school system need to rezone?

Three new schools — E.S.H. Greene Elementary, George Mason Elementary and a new middle school on Hull Street Road — are set to open in the fall of 2020, all at larger sizes than their current structures. There’s extensive overcrowding on the South Side of the river and a projected 6.6% enrollment increase divisionwide over the next decade, from 24,390 students this year to 25,993 in 2028-29.

The conversation that has dominated the discussion, though, has been on diversity and the fact that white students are concentrated at three elementary schools — Linwood Holton, Mary Munford and William Fox; the average elementary school in the city has just 52 white students enrolled, according to a report released in October by researchers at the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia Housing Alliance.

What parts of the city did the School Board vote on?

The board voted on new boundaries in the East End, South Side and West End. It also approved several amendments — more on those below — that are related to rezoning but don’t directly involve zoning lines.

Is pairing happening?

Not in the West End, but it’s still on the table in the North Side.

The idea would mean combining school zones to make a single, larger attendance zone and sending students to one school for some grades and the other school for other grades. Pairing was included in two of the four rezoning proposals recommended to the School Board by a special committee on rezoning.

Pairing has gained mixed feedback in the six months since it was initially proposed by the Ohio-based consultant Cropper GIS, which was paid $127,000 to develop rezoning plans.

In the West End, pairing would have meant sending students to Mary Munford Elementary, the whitest school in the school system, for third through fifth grades and George W. Carver Elementary for kindergarten through second grades. William Fox Elementary would have students through third grade before students switched to John B. Cary Elementary for fourth and fifth grades.

Another option called for students to go to Munford through second grade before attending Cary for third through fifth grades.

Why not vote for pairing?

The main issue raised over the past few months has been cost.

The RPS administration estimated in October that it would cost between $617,500 and $842,500 per school pairing. That money would pay for new teachers, new buses and new bathrooms, among other things.

“Straight rezoning doesn’t cost any money,” a Munford parent wrote in a public feedback form that collected much of the opinion from across the city. “The money should be spent on the 20+ unaccredited schools in RPS, air conditioning, heating, building repairs. … I think it would be a gross misappropriation of public money for the school board to spend that kind of money on pairing.”

There have also been concerns raised about the school system’s ability to implement pairing.

The district is in the midst of enacting a 40-part turnaround plan that aims to have all 44 schools in the city meet the state’s full accreditation standards. While rezoning is part of that plan, pairing is not.

What does the plan do in the West End?

Munford’s zone is unaffected in the plan.

“Mary Munford is a hard school to rezone for diversity because it is geographically segregated,” said Liz Doerr, who represents the 1st District, which includes Munford, at Monday’s meeting.

Carver Elementary takes an area north of Broad Street that is currently zoned for Fox, while Fox and Cary both take some areas from one another (92 from Cary to Fox and 126 from Fox to Cary). The biggest change is in the rezoning of the Museum District from Fox Elementary to Cary.

Under the approved plan, Carver goes from being 94% black to 91%, Cary from 86% to 57%, and Fox from 22% to 37%.

What was the board trying to correct with the Museum District?

The 2013 School Board shifted Museum District students, the majority of whom were white, from Cary Elementary to Fox Elementary. The board also closed the majority-black Clark Springs and put students from that school into Cary, making Fox whiter and Cary less diverse (now, 86% of students at Cary are black compared with roughly 25% before the decision).

“We have to learn from our mistakes so that we can move forward,” Page said.

Shannon Lindbloom, a current Fox parent who will now be zoned for Cary, led the effort to pair schools, creating a petition that received more than 500 signatures.

“Undoing the inequitable rezoning of 2013 was huge,” she said Tuesday. “We pushed for big, bold change and we landed somewhere in the middle. For some that’s a disappointment, but I believe the status quo would have prevailed without our cries for equity and integration. I’m proud of Richmond for making integration a priority.”

What does the plan do in the East End?

The main focus is on filling the new George Mason Elementary.

Students living in Whitcomb Court who currently attend Fairfield Court Elementary, which is currently at 94% of its capacity, are rezoned for the new Mason. Bellevue, Chimborazo and Woodville elementary schools don’t have their lines changed.

What about the South Side?

Currently, the average capacity at South Side elementary schools is over 100%. The plan approved Monday provides some relief.

Students living in the northern part of the current Broad Rock Elementary School zone will change schools and attend the new Greene Elementary, which is being rebuilt to house 1,000 students. Miles Jones Elementary will send 47 students to Southampton Elementary School and Blackwell Elementary will get 66 students from Oak Grove-Bellemeade Elementary.

Even with the rezoning, five of the 12 elementary schools on the South Side are slated to be more than full come next year.

“We did everything we could think of,” said Owen, the 9th District representative, about the South Side. “We don’t have the seats to move the children to.”

As part of the rezoning process, the board is planning to alter its facilities plan approved in December 2017. Members of the rezoning committee have called on the school system to build a new elementary school off Ruffin Road and rebuild G.H. Reid Elementary.

What’s changing for middle and high school students?

Munford, Carver and Cary elementary schools will all feed into Albert Hill Middle School while Fox Elementary goes into the nearby Binford Middle School, minor changes that affect roughly 50 students (43 from Binford to Hill and 14 from Hill to Binford). The area to the north and east of Byrd Park is currently zoned for Binford and will change to Hill, while the area north of Stuart Avenue between Arthur Ashe Boulevard and Allen Avenue will go from Hill to Binford.

There is some shake-up on the South Side, especially with middle schools to fill the new 1,500-student school that will replace the current Elkhardt-Thompson Middle School building. The rezoning committee suggested building another new middle school to address the growth on the South Side.

There aren’t any major changes in the East End for secondary schools, except for Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School’s zone no longer going south of the James River. Students south of the James will instead attend the new middle school.

The biggest change for high schools is 130 students currently zoned for John Marshall attending Thomas Jefferson instead to improve middle school feeder patterns. John Marshall would add some students from Armstrong High’s zone.

When do the changes take effect?

The changes happen for the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Where does the district’s plan to rethink middle and high school fit into all of this?

As part of the school system’s five-year turnaround plan, it wants to create theme-based middle and high schools. Each school would have one of five themes, and students from across the city would use an open enrollment-style system to enroll, meaning a student from the South Side interested in a certain topic could end up at John Marshall High School in the North Side, for example.

The changes should, according to the administration, improve diversity across the city.

“This is how, regardless of what happens with rezoning, we will ultimately integrate the school system,” Kamras said last month.

What other changes did the board approve?

The board committed to moving toward a weighted open enrollment lottery system that would give advantage to students from low-income families and help them get into schools outside of their zoned district.

Carver Elementary and Bellevue Elementary are also slated to become magnet schools with specialized curriculum by the 2021-22 school year.

The board also approved reserving 50 slots at Munford, the highest-performing elementary school in the city, for students from Carver, the second-lowest-performing elementary school.

What ever happened to the plan to get rid of neighborhood schools?

Young, the 4th District School Board member, in August proposed eliminating the concept of neighborhood schools in the city and using an open enrollment system for the entire school system.

The idea never got off the ground.

“I, for one, do not understand why we limit our students to their ZIP code. I do not support determining a child’s school by asking for their address,” Young said Monday. “This is why I introduced a proposal that prioritizes choice by leveraging open enrollment and that is why I do not support any of the options before us this evening.”

He added: “The aforementioned options constitute top-down politicians-know-best ideas; I instead support augmenting choice and allowing families to decide rather than nine politicians.”

Does the approved plan close schools?

No. School closures never took center stage as part of the rezoning process. One option released in the fall called for closing Bellevue Elementary, but it was not among the proposals finalized by the rezoning committee.

What’s going on in the North Side?

Several possibilities remain for Linwood Holton, Ginter Park and Barack Obama elementary schools.

The board could still vote to pair the three schools (K-2 at Ginter Park and Obama and 3-5 at Holton). It’s also considering changes to the Bellevue neighborhood, which is split up in plans currently before the board.

The group is asking Cropper, its consultant, to potentially come up with some options that don’t break up the neighborhood.

No consensus has been reached for what to do for the three schools.

When is the board going to figure that out?

A special meeting has been called for Dec. 16 at Ginter Park Elementary School. It will be the school system’s 59th rezoning meeting this year.

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jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

Politics/Education Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers state government and education. A northern New York native and a Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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