Wednesday, October 26, 2011

JEOPARDIZING PUBLIC TRUST IN HIGH SCHOOL REDISTRICTING, TRANSITION, TRANSFERS

In 2008, the Las Cruces School Board requested and received public support for a bond to build a $112 million high school to relieve overcrowding at Las Cruces, Mayfield, and Onate high schools. The promise was that this fourth high school, since named Centennial, would be comprehensive and comparable in educational opportunities—academic, athletic, and extracurricular—to the three other high schools. On 18 October, while it listened to a presentation about yet another bond request, the Board and the Superintendent placed their public promise justifying its previous bond in jeopardy.

As a rule, redistricting is controversial and contentious. Two year’s ago, redistricting elementary and middle schools was the exception; this year, redistricting high schools is the rule. Yet the Board and the Superintendent have reacted to public comments with panicky dismay and precipitous decisions. School Board Chair Connie Phillips; Vice Chair Maria Flores, Mayfield parent; and Members Bonnie Votaw and Elizabeth Hall, former Mayfield teachers, shied from opposing other Board members who yielded to the demands of former colleagues or continuing friends at Mayfield. Phillips announced her recusal from voting on redistricting but continued to influence discussions and decisions on the issues. Superintendent Stan Rounds, working with Board members, perceived their growing discomfort and acted to give them relief. The results are bad decisions with dire consequences for students and the bond-backing public.

Las Cruces, Mayfield, and Onate have between 2000 and 2400 students apiece. To relieve overcrowding at these three schools means reassigning some of their students so that all four schools have about the same number of students. The obvious problem is that a change in school size not only influences educational opportunities, but also does so unevenly. The general gain comes at the price of specific pain. The minority affected adversely often objects, often vociferously and vitriolically. The majority not so affected, or accepting or approving of the redistricting, seldom speaks up.

With construction of Centennial High School nearing completion, the Board chartered a Redistricting Advisory Committee to draw boundaries ensuring an appropriate assignment of students. Board criteria and Superintendent guidance were clear: balance in school size (numbers of students) and composition (ethnic and socio-economic factors), with consideration to growth in student numbers, neighborhoods, natural or highway boundaries, and safety, transportation, and roads. At the Committee’s first meeting, the Superintendent stipulated balance in school size as 1800 plus or minus 50 students at each school. At a later School Board retreat, the Board, under pressure to leave the Elks area, the most difficult of all, in the Mayfield attendance zone, wanted a wider range so that the Committee could consider more options. The issue was how much wider. To avoid large ranges educationally detrimental, the Board adopted a flexible, non-numerical standard (think pants size options: regular and relaxed fits) which would provide “comparability,” but not uniformity, in numbers and composition (think omelets, not pancakes). All those attending agreed to “comparability” in school size and composition as essential to comparable educational opportunity.

The Committee fully complied with its instructions. It first examined some two dozen scenarios, then some half a dozen more with Elks in Mayfield. As hard as it tried, the Committee could not achieve anything like comparability in school size if it left Elks in Mayfield. At best, the other three schools would average 580 fewer students in 2014/15 and 470 fewer students in 2020/21, the first and last years according to the available data showing Centennial with four full grades. (Those fewer students equal about 19 and 16 fewer thirty-student classes, respectively.) When this attempt failed, Committee members voted almost unanimously to support a finding that a District of one large school (Mayfield) and three smaller schools did not best serve all students. But Chair Merrie Lee Soules, who had been in frequent contact with Phillips, refused to permit the majority’s desire for a statement of the Committee’s compliance with its instructions because, as Soules said, she wanted to avoid “boxing” the Board into its own criteria! However, by the time she presented the Committee’s final recommendation, Rounds had decided on transition/transfer arrangement which would undermine any redistricting plan for many years.

The Committee did not consider transition/transfer arrangements. Until the 18 October Board meeting, the announced transition/transition arrangement was clear: seniors would remain in their current high school, juniors could volunteer to attend Centennial, but sophomores and freshmen would attend it. Athletes could apply for an automatic transfer; others could apply for transfer under the current open enrollment policy. Thus, Centennial would open at least half-full with two full grades of freshman and sophomores, would be fully populated in two more years, and would thereby get off to a sensible, even a promising, start in three years.

At the 18 October Board meeting, Rounds announced a different transition/transfer arrangement: the District would automatically approve transfers by any students in the sixth through the eleventh grades, from their new assignment zone to their original one. In other words, whatever the redistricting plan, the new transfer policy requires no student to attend Centennial for three years (today’s fifth graders would be the first students required to attend), the school will not likely be fully populated (around 1800 students) for four more years, and overcrowding in the other three schools will continue. The Committee would probably think even less of a system of three large schools and one, new, small school—a situation differing from the original one only by the addition of a $112 million building—for seven years.

Rounds’ announcement of the new transition/transfer arrangement revealed that the Board had caved to pressure from Mayfield parents, students, and teachers angered by the loss of the Elks area because its effect on Mayfield’s music and athletics programs. His pre-emptive announcement spared the Board public input of any kind, whether disapproving or supportive. His precipitous announcement made populating Centennial highly problematic and a comparable education of students almost impossible, for seven years. Thus, Centennial will be neither comprehensive like, nor comparable to, the other three high schools for a long time. Its future difficulties will be likely to replicate many of Onate’s past ones.

This task of populating Centennial falls mainly to its first principal, Michael Montoya, currently the principal of Picacho Middle School. Throughout the redistricting process, he was the spokesman for Centennial; in the transition/transfer period, he will become the salesman for a school with no students, teachers, coaches, or activity directors (orchestra, drama, etc.); no curriculum of known courses, athletic teams, orchestra, cast—nothing sure, everything awaiting one student at a time willing to take the risk that other students will join him or her.

The Board and the Superintendent have ensured Centennial of a shaky start. The school will not be empty, only underpopulated. Some students will accept assignment to Centennial under the new redistricting plan. Others from the three current assignment zones may transfer to Centennial and be welcomed under the District’s open enrollment policy. Some “white flight” from the Las Alturas and Sonoma Ranch areas is likely; it will give Centennial an ethnic and socio-economic composition different from that of the other three schools and thus a reputation as a school for rich, white kids.

Worse, for the prolonged period of its start-up, Centennial is unlikely to have enough students in their grades to justify the same array of academic courses which the other three high schools offer. The District has a limited array of options to compensate: smaller class sizes and higher staffing costs, busing, or distance learning. The latter will require the Board and the Superintendent to mislead students and parents that remote learning is comparable to classroom learning. Obviously, this misrepresentation is a self-serving deception; otherwise, the District could dispense with almost all of its teachers.

This is Plan A: crossing fingers. But if Plan A fails, Centennial’s struggles from the start and for years will prompt a transition to Plan B. Initially, Phillips, Flores, Votaw, Hall, and Rounds will invoke, with expressions of heartfelt sincerity, their good intentions to have done everything “for the kids.” These protestations not only will not distract from the truth in this case or justify their decisions, but also will likely prepare for after-the-fact exculpation or accusation. Eventually, they will make charges and counter-charges, and ultimately blame the Superintendent or staff for failing to succeed though their desires and decisions made failure all but inevitable. This is Plan B: pointing fingers.

Meanwhile, many students will suffer the consequences of the District’s lack of leadership and its flawed decisions; and the public will perceive the lack of integrity of District officials in their failure to honor public promises made to secure bonds. Until they remedy this situation, they should make no more promises for still more bonds. If they do, the public should not accept them because they have betrayed its trust.

2 comments:

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  2. I received and refused to publish a comment which insulted the intelligence and motives of Committee members, indicated ignorance of the Committee's instructions (available on the District website), and ignored the priority-driven trade-offs which those instructions require.

    Those with comments about the Committee's final recommendation should contact the District or their School Board member. The Committee has discharged its responsibilities and is no longer operational.

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