Lewiston redistricting committee rejects parents ideas, stays with plan


LEWISTON – After hearing suggestions to change plans about sending a few hundred students to different schools, redistricting committee members said no to most ideas Monday.

The committee is recommending sending 234 elementary students, about 8 percent of the total, to different schools this fall. The reasons are to handle a growing enrollment and provide greater equity by spreading out the number of poorer students and students learning to speak English.

After hearing from parents at December meetings at Geiger, Montello and Farwell schools, Superintendent Bill Webster presented a list of parent suggestions to the redistricting committee. Only two of 17 were adopted Monday.

One adopted was that students who live in the Perley Street and Jan Boulevard area stay within the Farwell school area. The second suggestion adopted was that research used to base decisions on redistributing students be posted on the School Department’s website.

Rejected suggestions included:

* Allow impacted families to stay in their present schools until all children are promoted or move to another school;

* Put parents from impacted schools on the redistricting committee;

* Delay redistricting another year;

* Adopt citywide school choice and eliminate all school boundary lines.

Committee member and School Committee member Jim Handy reacted strongly to that idea, saying it would “create an educational wasteland.” Handy said he gave that suggestion “two thumbs down.”

Another suggestion from parents was to not wait five years for expected state funding to build a new elementary school for the Farwell/Longley/Martel area.

“Do we have to discuss that really?” said committee member and city councilor John Butler. The $35 million cost to local taxpayers was not worth discussing, he inferred.

Parents asked if balancing the numbers of students getting free and reduced-price lunches and those learning English is so important, why was Longley Elementary left unchanged in grades prekindergarten to grade 2.

At Longley, 93 percent of students get free and reduced-price lunches and 61 percent are learning English. Citywide, 67 percent of students get free and reduced-price lunches and 23 are learning English.

The committee’s answer was that the only way to balance Longley was to close the school altogether, it’s the poorest and most transient section of Lewiston. Instead, the committee is recommending Longley house prekindergarten to grade two students who now attend Longley, Farwell and Martel, when a new elementary school is built in five years. That would help parents without cars be able to walk to their child’s school, committee member Audrey Chapman said.

Other parent suggestions included handling disparity through allocating more resources to schools; and redistricting by considering only proximity and not demographics.

Those ideas were given thumbs down, as committee members said the goal of more equally spreading out poorer students and those learning English is critical. Webster has said if all elementary schools more closely reflected the diversity of the city, more students would have more success.

“I’m proud of the direction of this committee,” said Linda St. Andre, committee member and Longley principal. Doing a better job of spreading students with greater needs to more schools “has been a long time coming,” she said.

Committee members Tom Hood, Bruce Damon, Angie St. Hilaire and Handy agreed. The committee worked hard to get where it is, Damon said. “We took a view of this from 30,000 feet, we’ve really addressed this city wide.”

Louise Elie, a grandmother of Montello students, thanked committee members for their work.

“We need to remember that parents are very reluctant to send their children to Montello. That’s one of the reasons this redistricting is so important,” she said. Too many parents are having “Facebook wars” about redistricting “that are very self-serving.” She encouraged them to “keep in mind the greater goal.”

The proposal would tweak students demographics at Montello, a school with more than 700 students. The plan would mean Montello would have 69 percent of its students getting free or reduced-price lunches, instead of the current 75 percent; and 24 percent English Language Learner students, instead of the current 37 percent.

Webster will hold two meetings with parents this week: at 6 p.m. Wednesday at McMahon school; and 2 p.m. Thursday at Longley school.

The school committee is scheduled to vote on the plan Feb. 25.