For almost a year, Jefferson County Public Schools officials have been crafting a new student assignment plan for elementary students. Tonight, the Board of Education is expected to vote on the final product. WFPL’s Stephanie Sanders reports.
The district was forced to change the process it uses to assign students to schools when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that its 30-year old desegregation policy was unconstitutional. The majority opinion says the plan was unfair because it was sometimes based solely on a student’s race.
Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Sheldon Berman – who started the job just three days after the ruling – says coming up with a new plan has been a major challenge and a tremendous opportunity.
“That’s part of an attitude you have to have if you’re going to take on challenges and make them work. We’re doing the best we can, and I’m looking forward to a better system as a result of this.”
The old and new plans contain a similar element, what is known as the 15-50 ratio. Under the plan struck down by the high court, schools were required to have at least 15-percent and no more than 50-percent African-American students. Berman says the ratio will still be applied, but it won’t be limited to African-Americans.
“Now we’ve designated areas that are high-poverty, high-minority, and those are the areas that are now labeled as geographic area A, and the other areas are geographic area B.”
The education levels of adults over 25 are also a factor in determining geographic areas A and B. And though race is still a consideration, Berman thinks the new plan is safe from further court scrutiny.
“The Supreme Court was very clear that race could be used as a factor, we believe the multi-factor plan meets the standards of the Supreme Court and in fact, we think it will stand up to any challenge.”
But students wouldn’t be assigned to just any elementary school in the county based on the 15-50 ratio. The student assignment committee at JCPS has crafted a cluster plan that places 12 to 15 elementary schools into geographic clusters. The approved plan has six contiguous sections. Students would be assigned based on where they live, but could attend any elementary school in that cluster.
“None of us know how this is going to work out now, that’s the whole thing.”
PTA President Traci Priddy is worried the plan may promote diversity at first, but not in the long term.
“People move and subdivisions change. I’m just not sure this is going to keep us where we are at the moment.”
But Berman insists he recommended this plan because it offers the best opportunity to achieve the district’s goals.
“I think we’ve created a plan that is better at sustaining diversity over the long run, and that in the end will improve the quality of schools, overall.”
At tonight’s meeting, the school board is expected to grant final approval to the student assignment plan. Still to be decided is whether to allow the so-called grandfathering of students who are already in elementary school. Those students wouldn’t be moved unless they want to transfer.
Berman says it would also mean about 800-thousand dollars extra a year in transportation costs for two to three years.
“We haven’t started planning the 2010 budget, but my hunch is that if the economy is looking in any way the way its looking now, we’ll be making some cuts to afford that.”
Berman thinks most – if not all – the school board members are in favor of grandfathering current elementary students. If the plan gets final approval, it will go into effect in the fall of 2009.
And after tonight, Berman says his student assignment committee will get to work on revamping the assignment process for middle and high school students.