New elementary school boundaries must be set within a year in Port Washington and the school board has begun debating how to prepare.
"I expect it to be a hot potato," said Board Member Nancy Cowles. "Nobody ends up happy, but it has to be done."
Known in administrative parlance as "redistricting," changed boundaries must be ready long before the September 2003 reopening of Salem Elementary School.
Administrators want to know far in advance how many students to accommodate, and to project as many details as possible, so they can efficiently plan to meet needs of those students. For example, immigrant children may require help learning English, which translates into class space and a teacher.
"Having a fifth elementary school brings a lot of issues into focus," said Dr. Albert Inserra, superintendent of Port Washington Public Schools. He encouraged starting as soon as possible.
Three basic approaches to establishing a redistricting committee were proposed by Inserra during the November 13 meeting of the board of education of the Port Washington Public School District.
First, the board could assume responsibility directly. The board might develop forms for community input, the school superintendent advised, but the school board would be solely responsible for identifying the many issues and developing policies without any intermediary to do the legwork for board members.
Second, Inserra said the board could appoint a district task force of community representatives, including diverse groups such as parents, police and fire officials, P.T.A. or H.S.A., and community interest groups.
Third, the board could appoint an ad hoc committee comprising school board members and community members.
School district staff already drafted a general charge that can be adapted quickly once the school board decides on which option or variation it would prefer.
Ultimately, the school board decided to ponder the matter until its November 27 meeting at Schreiber High School, when the meeting will become a session to work out the details of the redistricting committee. Discussion leading up to that decision was lively and highlighted some of the controversial points:
Inserra said the board might want to address such complex issues as whether or not to assure that each elementary school reflects the socio-economic status and ethnic backgrounds of Port Washington in general.
He advised that the gathering of community opinions be completed no later than June, so the board would have at least until September to consider alternatives. By October 1 of 2002, the schools chief said the board should have elementary school district boundaries established.
Inserra encouraged the school board to decide by December which option it prefers for gathering community opinions on elementary school boundaries. That would give committee members seeking neighborhood input at least six months to do their job.
The philosophy of the district, the mission statement of each district, these things need to be considered, Inserra told the board. Looking at scenarios only geographically may not be enough. It is a more complex question than that, he noted.
Board member Cowles initial reaction favored a committee to recommend plans from which the board might choose. She said the committee might include representatives from the police and fire departments and other community organizations, "because this isn't just affecting the kids; it's affecting the whole community"
Cowles said, "We want the best plan and we really need the most kinds of input, and not just from ourselves."
School board member Peter Wezenaar expressed concerns over undue influence.
"My fear is you would have the powerful influencing and impacting those who don't really have a voice," Wezenaar said. "In the thirteenth hour, the board makes the decision anyway."
Wezenaar said it seemed simple, "If you live in a neighborhood, you should go to the school near your house."
School board member John Zimmerman wasn't sure it was so simple, and expressed a preference for an ad hoc committee.
Board member Laura Mogul said, "We want as broad input as we can get. But if we have too big a committee it would be unwieldy." She also favors an ad hoc committee:
"This is too big an issue for us to work out all the details," Mogul said, "But in the end it will come back to us."
Board President Richard Sussman said, "We were charged by the community to make the decision to do it. I would favor some type of board advisory or steering committee. But the committee itself should be board members. We're the ones who know the district the best."
Mogul disagreed, "We'd be foolish to take on the entire task ourselves. I favor the sort of hybrid option of having both community members and board members. Then roll out of the plan can go at least a little bit smoother."
Cowles said she had lived through the last redistricting. "It was not easy and we had a lot of hard feelings," she said.
"I agree kids who live near a neighborhood school ought to be able to go there," said Cowles. "But when it comes to deciding what constitutes a neighborhood, that's when it starts to get difficult."
Board President Sussman said there could be many controversial issues, such as whether to consider achieving a racial mix.
Mogul pointed out that whatever policy issues are decided by the board might be communicated to a committee working on redistricting. She said the committee could be told certain policies are not negotiable and must be included.
Board Member Robert Ferro said, "I'd prefer to make some decisions in a public session and if we're going in the wrong direction the public will let us know."
Superintendent Inserra emphasized the need for community involvement. "There are interests that need to be at least heard," he said.
Cowles said that if the board does decide to take on the redistricting chore directly, they should ask school administrators for their opinions and guidance.
Cowles advised, "I don't think tonight is the night to decide on this."
Inserra followed with a warning, "Be careful. You have a lot of work ahead of you." Debate continued.
Wezenaar favored "some kind of roving road show, going village to village. I think that's much more democratic than a small elite task force that get to make these calls."
Sussman countered, "I don't think it's that complicated. It's like doing a term paper, waiting until the last minute. I'd like to appoint a committee at the next board meeting. Look at the issues, how was done it in the past, how other school districts have done it." He said that by the following board meeting, the committee of board members should be ready to present the issues.
Superintendent Inserra then suggested making a work session of the November 27 meeting to be held at Schreiber High School. Board members agreed.
Members of the public who would like to offer their views to school board members in advance may use their e-mail addresses, available on the school board section of the town's website at www.portnet.k12.ny.us/boe. Public access to the Internet is available on computers at the Port Washington Public Library. Those who prefer, may write to board members in care of the Port Washington Public School District Administration, Campus Drive, Port Washington, New York 11050. In addition, letters to the editor of the Port Washington News are welcome but for space reasons should be fewer than 150 words.