In the next step toward deciding new grammar schools districts, the Port Washington Board of Education has resolved to hold meetings with several special groups around town to hear residents voice their priorities.
Individuals heard will represent minority groups and special education parents, in addition to other interest groups, according to School Board President Richard Sussman in a follow-up e-mail clarifying his view of the intentions expressed by the school board during its Nov. 27 meeting.
Sussman said, "These are not meetings with any territorial groups."
In other words, these groups are not representing geographic areas of town.
Board members seemed intent on listening to a broad cross-section, including residents with and without school age children, and owners and managers of local businesses. The school system trustees made it clear they intend to have future meetings in which neighborhood representatives and unaffiliated members of the community may be heard.
"All board members expressed a desire to have an open process with a maximum amount of community input," said the board president.
During the board meeting, Superintendent Albert Inserra, Ph.D., presented basic issues for the board to consider before assigning children to schools beginning in the fall of 2003 when Salem School opens as the fifth elementary school.
The school administrator offered several factors the board will need to prioritize, including the neighborhood concept, an efficient and cost effective transportation plan, and such additional issues as housing, ethnicity, race, special needs, and socioeconomic status.
Superintendent Inserra advised board members that although the board has considered a number of possible plans, that board members might want to "be careful to distinguish that you don't yet have a plan" that is predetermined, but to let the public know the board is open to suggestions.
The school board was to meet on Dec. 4 to discuss the draft of the administration plan. Sussman emphasized in his e-mail, "This is only a draft and will need fine tuning."
Before finalizing what weight to give each issue in the redistricting plan, board members seemed intent on going to the public for advice on what is important to each individual, neighborhood or interest group.
In addition, the school administration has been directed by the school board to compile a list of potential volunteers. This list might be the starting point for creating an ad hoc committee to give the board advice about redistricting, with representatives to be selected in the near future. The nature of the committee is to be determined at an upcoming school board meeting.
Sussman stated in his clarifying e-mail, "We are soliciting volunteers for committees if needed to help us in the process. I urge all of you to consider volunteering. If you are interested, please send a resume or statement why you wish to volunteer and any special skills you bring to the committee."
Letters may be sent to the Office of the Superintendent, Port Washington School District, Campus Drive, Port Washington, NY 11050.
During the debate leading to the vote to go out into neighborhoods to ask for local opinions, board members offered a variety of approaches.
Board Member Jonathan Zimmerman advocated for setting up confidential executive sessions so that the board could hear the concerns of local communities that might be in danger of not being heard, such as minority groups based on race or ethnicity. He pointed out that some residents might be afraid to voice their needs candidly in public.
Sussman pointed out that under the state open meetings law, the board cannot meet privately with interest groups. The board generally meets in confidential executive session to discuss issues that are inherently confidential, such as personnel matters.
Board member Nancy Cowles agreed with board member Julie Meyer, who said, "The real thing is to find out what is important to people."
Cowles wondered whether Zimmerman intended to solicit members of minority groups such as the Hispanic community to attend these private school board sessions, and whether he might mean to invite residents from various areas that are geographically separated, such as from Manorhaven, Willowdale Ave., and Main Street.
Zimmerman replied, "We're just saying they have a stake" in the redistricting process.
Meyer noted, "If you target just these groups, there are a lot of people you leave out."
Sussman said that he and board member Peter Wezenaar had already met for coffee with members of some community groups unofficially to gather local opinions and build their own sensitivity to community preferences about how school boundaries should be drawn.
The school board passed a motion to have the administration draw up preliminary redistricting plans, with six of the seven members in favor. Board member Peter Wezenaar argued against, saying his concern was that drawing a preliminary plan might create preconceived priorities.
Sussman countered that the plans would be subject to change and are intended to give the board members and the public some idea of the factors they might consider in creating a final plan.
There were discussions of how good intentions must be balanced by actually talking to Port Washington residents who are involved, and not jumping on the agenda of state or national groups that lack familiarity with local needs and desires.
Board member Cowles mentioned a past protest by a civil rights group objecting that most of Port's African American youngsters were in one elementary school. She said that when the local African American community was consulted, however, the neighborhood was pleased that their children attended a school together and did not want their youngsters bused.
The board expects to consult with local African American leaders to learn their current views on redistricting.
Meyer made a number of thought-provoking suggestions that were not voted on but seem to address board members' concerns for reaching as many residents as possible:
"I think we should include the different areas of town. Not just the incorporated areas, and include Harbor Homes, and also start up a website, because not everybody wants to make their names known, and send out a survey using postcards. I think we need to explore every avenue we can to get community input."
Board Mmer Laura Mogul proposed exploring community coffees. "We need to charge committee members to get us access to as many community members as possible."
Board member Peter Wezenaar said, "Most people are going to want to go to their own local school. We have to do what's right rather than what's popular." He agreed that neighborhood coffee meetings would be useful for gathering opinions and opening a dialogue with the public.