Full disclosure: Ed McKeon is member of the Board of Education until new members are sworn in after the election on November 3. This article is his individual recount of a public workshop on redistricting and in no way constitutes an opinion of the Board of Ed, or represents an opinion of any other member of the Board of Ed. Ed will not be a Board of Ed member when voting on redistricting occurs, but he did vote to authorize a study to determine how to address overcrowding and racial imbalance in Middletown's schools.
The majority of those attending were parents, but also in attendance were teachers, school administrators, members of the Board of Education, candidates from the Board of Education from Democratic and Republican slates, a Democratic council candidate and the entire slate of Republican Council candidates and mayoral candidate Sandra Russo-Driska.
The meeting began with consultants Milone and McBroom, who have been hired by the Board to develop plans based on criteria set by a redistricting committee. Most members of the redistricting committee were in attendance. Those criteria include solving current overcrowding at Farm Hill Elementary school, and future potential overcrowding at other schools, racial imbalance at Macdonough and socioeconomic imbalance throughout the system.
Consultants Rebecca Augur and Pat Gallagher presented background and profiles of the district, and projections for the school population in coming years.
"There's a discrepancy in the amount of available space across the district," Augur said. By way of example, she indicated that a portable classroom was currently in at Farm Hill School under a one-year contract, and that while Macdonough has a small room shared for art and music that Moody School has an art room and two music room.
The consultants also demonstrated a significant imbalance in minority population, and those students who take advantage of free and reduced lunch, which is usually an indicator of poverty. Those imbalances are seen most clearly at Bielfield, Wesley, Macdonough and Moody schools.
Milone and MacBroom presented two long term scenarios, and nine short term solutions, indicating that they were instructed by the committee to develop plans that could be implemented at the start of the school year in the fall of 2016. With that in mind, they presented three possibilities, each of which addressed some of the committee's concerns, and each with some shortcomings.
The consultants made it clear that not one of the scenarios was completely acceptable to the committee and that the suggestions made by the public were significant in guiding the committee to their decision.
According to the consultants, Scenario E1 offered the best solution for racial and socioeconomic balance, though with some tradeoffs for proximity and utilization of facilities.
Scenario E2 offered better proximity of students to school (neighborhood schools), but sacrificed racial and socioeconomic balance.
Scenario E3 offered the best utilization of facilities, and proximity but didn't solve problems of racial and socioeconomic balance.
When asked to comment, the response was immediate and negative.
Chris Bonsignore was the first resident to speak, and he read a letter, and delivered a petition of 500 signatures which questioned the very basis of the redistricting proposal. His letter indicated that redistricting was premature because city schools are not out of balance according to state statute, and that redistricting would be "disruptive to Middletown families."
His sentiment was echoed by most of the speakers who followed.
Moody parent Desiree Schmelter was the first to express a sensitivity to reports of racial imbalance, and the fact that it might point to a deeper concern that some parents do not want more minority students at their schools. Schmelter said that her children did not care about he color of the skin of the student that sat next to him, only that they were good friends.
"We all bleed red," she said to the applause of those gathered.
Moody parent Sacha Crockett, who said her son would be affected by some of the redistricting proposals, looked at the other side of the argument.
"My black son who goes to Moody is one of the 27% of minority students who could be moved," she said.
But Crockett indicated that the arguments presented at the meeting and on social media had opened her eyes about her neighbors who smile and wave at her every morning.
"I get to hear all the obnoxious thoughts of my neighbors," she said. "My neighbors, who are predominantly white, are scared of all these black kids coming to Moody."
Most Moody parents, however, downplayed the issue of racial imbalance, acknowledging the need to solve the overcrowding at Farm Hill, and spoke forcefully saying that the overcrowding issue should not be the reason to realign the entire district.
Moody parent Meg Susi accused the redistricting committee of trying to solve problems that did not exist.
"None of the plans presented solves all of the six criteria," she said. "My message to the commitee is stop."
Susi recited a litany of "stop" messages to the committee, and ended by saying, "Stop engineering the downfall of Middletown Public Schools.
Moody parents, while being the largest contingent of opponents to the plan, were not the only school parents to speak out. Representatives from Macdonough, with the largest minority percentage in the district, and Farm Hill, also spoke in opposition.
Farm Hill parent Meghan Glomb explained that her family bought a home in Middletown because it was affordable, but carefully chose the neighborhood where they would live so that her children could attend Farm Hill.
"If you move my children," she said. "We can't pick up my home and move it closer to a school we love."
Macdonough parent Yohanny Rodriquez spoke of her frustration in thinking that her child might be moved from a school she loved.
"I made a decision to stay in the North End, to go to Macdonough," she said. "Now I'm having Macdonough torn away from me."
She also indicated that she would not like her child to be transferred as an outsider and be referred to pejoratively as "the Macdonough student."
The only parent who spoke in favor of the need of redistricting was Farm Hill parent Cathy Lechowicz.
'I don't think voluntary movement is really going to work," Lechowicz said. "Something needs to happen. We have a real issue. We have too many kids at Farm Hill."
At the end of the forum, Superintendent Pat Charles, who spent the evening accepting the brunt of the negative passion and criticism, promised that all comments would be considered, and discussed by the committee, before further iterations of the redistricting proposal would be brought before the public.
Members of the public who want to contribute ideas, suggestions or corrections could email the committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Another public forum on redistricting will be held Thursday November 12, at Woodrow Wilson Middle School.