By Linda Conner Lambeck
WESTPORT — Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice said he wouldn’t recommend elementary school redistricting, even on a limited basis, before the fall of 2025.
“There are way too many details that have to be taken care of,” Scarice told the Board of Education at Monday’s meeting.
Scarice said a multi-step redistricting plan can start only when he knows the full plan. A full plan can’t be developed, he said, until an elementary school capacity study is complete in February and the town makes a decision on whether to repair or replace Long Lots Elementary School, perhaps by June.
Even then, he said, a redistricting effort would not be launched until every detail is settled.
“I would need everything buttoned up … I don’t see [it happening for] September 24,” the superintendent added.
Board member Robert Harrington had urged the redistricting discussion to address growing enrollment imbalances between the town’s five elementary schools — two are much larger than the other three — and two middle schools.
Long Lots, at 600 students, is the town’s largest elementary school, and is projected to grow larger.
Bedford Middle School has 730 students, while Coleytown Middle has 465.
The board voted 4-3 earlier this month to ask the town for funds to install two modular classrooms at Long Lots to ease overcrowding until a new or renovated Long Lots is complete.
Harrington, along with fellow Republicans Dorie Hordon and Vice Chairwoman Liz Heyer, questioned whether redistricting sooner rather than later might be a better way to address the Long Lots space crunch.
The modular classrooms, “in my opinion, won’t deal with the growth in projected students,” Harrington said Monday.
Early stages or not, difficult conversation or not, Harrington said a discussion of redistricting is long overdue.
The board has been flooded with letters this month from the Long Lots community urging support for the portable classrooms and to take time to prepare redistricting.
Some estimates suggest that left unchecked, the Long Lots enrollment could grow to 680 students.
“Do we want an elementary school that big?” asked Hordon. Redistricting would have an impact on only a limited number of families, she added.
“No one wants to rush into redistricting plan,” Harrington said. “This is the beginning of discussion. I don’t think it’s rushing.”
If this fall is not plausible, Harrington asked why a limited redistricting could not be accomplished by the fall of 2024.
Board Chairwoman Lee Goldstein said she is open to redistricting in phases, but said September 2024 wouldn’t give the district enough time.
“Until we know what is happening to Long Lots, we can’t make any sort of meaningful plan,” Goldstein said.
Board members Christina Torres, Kevin Christie and Secretary Neil Phillips agreed with their fellow Democrat.
“We all agree with redistricting. We don’t agree on the timing,” said Torres.
Phillips said there is a difference between redistricting fast and redistricting right. He cautioned the board against pitting communities against one another and bringing politics into any decisions.
“This is not a Democrat thing or a Republican thing. It’s a Westport thing,” Phillips said.
Rather than set a target date for redistricting, Phillips said he wants to hear what’s possible. “I agree, sooner the better.”
Scarice said decisions that would need to be made before redistricting can take place include knowing the future of Long Lots, its size and whether Stepping Stones Preschool, currently at Coleytown Elementary, will be relocating to the Hyde Lane property.
The board would have to determine the number of redistricting phases the town can handle, factor in the impact on the middle schools and consider issues such as whether to allow fifth graders to remain at their schools regardless of districtwide shifts.
Other factors would include drawing new school boundary lines, making personnel transfers and preparing a budget for the shift, Scarice said.
Community input would be needed before and after decisions are made, the superintendent added.
“To me, there is a pressing need to address [enrollment imbalance],” Heyer told Scarice. “In a perfect world we might want 30 months. We don’t always get a perfect world. We don’t always get what we want.”
Heyer said the enrollment imbalance could have a more significant impact on students than moving them to a less crowded school.
Scarice said the imbalances don’t mean there are inequities between the schools. He promised to keep the discussion moving.
Harrington said despite hearing four board members speak against a fall 2024 redistricting target date, he considered the discussion helpful.
“I think there is a way forward,” said Harrington. “I want to be open-minded and I want to be flexible. I don’t want to take anything off table. I want to keep options open.”
Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.