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Groton — Before students are shuffled between the town's seven elementary schools next year in an effort to address a racial imbalance, residents are expected to have their say.
At least four neighborhood meetings are part of the plan presented Monday by a consulting firm hired to help the Board of Education redraw school district boundaries. Members of the Branford firm of Milone & MacBroom presented an updated redistricting plan at a joint meeting of the school board and town council.
"Is this the last one? I don't know," said Michael Zuba, associate senior planner with the consulting firm. "Public comment will tell."
By next month, the school board plans to hand over a draft plan to the state Department of Education that it hopes will satisfy a mandate to address a racial imbalance. The state notified the town in 2010 that Catherine Kolnaski Magnet School had an unacceptably high percentage of minorities and at least three other elementary schools were on the verge of being racially imbalanced based on shifting demographics. There are more than 2,400 elementary school students across Groton.
Laura Anastasio, staff attorney for the state Department of Education, said a school is considered racially imbalanced if the minority population is more than 25 percent higher than the district average. A pending imbalance means the school has a minority population of more than 15 percent of the district. Claude Chester, North East Academy and S.B. Butler are on the verge of imbalance.
"It's a very difficult issue," Anastasio said. "I've seen many communities struggle with this. But the school system needs to reflect the overall population. You can't have concentrations of minorities in certain schools. It's the law."
Zuba on Monday outlined some of the difficulties in addressing the state mandate while minimizing impacts on families and neighborhoods.
The redistricting involves more than simply moving students from one school to another. Major concerns that need to be addressed are school capacity, transportation and school programming, all while trying to keep neighborhoods intact.
That is not always possible as shown in the map Zuba presented Monday which in one case splits up the 180 students living at Branford Manor. In another case, some students at Claude Chester who used to walk across the street to school will be bused elsewhere.
"It's a balancing act. We understand it's hard to address mandates and minimize impacts in families and neighborhoods," Zuba said. "It really involves small changes throughout the community."
Zuba said further changes to the plan are expected when new school enrollment numbers are available in October. The transitional nature of the community remains a challenge considering the plan needs to stay relevant for at least five years.
Once the redistricting plan is updated, the school board is expected to present it to the public and to the state for review. A final plan is expected to be completed by December.
The entire presentation is expected to be available online. The board has yet to schedule dates and locations for the neighborhood meetings.
Interim superintendent Randall Collins has already asked the state for an extension in presenting the plan to the state since he is leaving on Sept. 28 and the board is interviewing for his replacement tonight.
Considering how emotional the change in schools can be for families, Collins said the public meetings are key to success.
"We want to make sure the community has a chance to get their questions answered," he said.