LEWISTON — After months of controversial hearings, the Lewiston School Committee voted 5-3 Monday night not to redistrict 223 elementary students this fall, a plan some McMahon and Geiger school parents opposed, and Montello parents favored.
The proposal would have moved downtown students from poorer neighborhoods, including English Learning Language students from immigrant families, to Geiger and McMahon, and move Montello students to McMahon.
The goal was to fill new class space at McMahon and to better balance the city's number of poor and ELL students, especially at Montello, which has 37 percent ELL students, compared to the city's average of 23 percent.
Supporters said when the right balance of ELL students were mainstreamed, they'd learn English faster, while local students would learn a new culture. Redistricting would also help all students better prepare for middle and high school by exposing them earlier to the same demographics they'll face in the seventh grade.
Those speaking against the plan said it wasn't necessary, didn't diversify enough or had too many problems.
Those speaking for it said it was the right thing to do.
“If my daughter were black, didn't speak English very well and lived on a subsidized income provided by other taxpayers, what would I want for her?” committee member Tom Shannon asked. “The same opportunity for education that every other student gets.”
Shannon, Jim Handy and Paul St. Pierre voted for the plan. Voting against were Robert Connors, Linda Scott, Sonia Taylor, Elizabeth Dube and Donald D'Auteuil. D'Auteuil is the City Council's representative on the School Committee.
Before the vote, St. Pierre said, as a board member, he had a responsibility to represent his ward, but his overriding interest was how to provide the best education for all Lewiston students.
“Our schools aren't private," St. Pierre said. "They're not charter. They're public. They're for all our children.” Redistricting would help all students at the middle and high schools, he said. “Having inner-city children in all of our schools is not going to adversely affect any of the other students,” he said.
D'Auteuil said he opposed the plan because it didn't go far enough to diversify schools.
He has two children getting A's at Montello in racially mixed classes that do well. The redistricting plan before them left Farwell, Martell and Longley schools untouched. “If we're going to look at diversifying, it's got to be city-wide, touch every school,” he said.
Middle school “can be an explosive place,” D'Auteuil said. When students start the seventh grade without being exposed to different cultures, “there's this shock factor.” The plan did too little to diversify but would disrupt “so many kids,” he said.
Linda Scott and Robert Connors said there were too many problems with the plan. It started out to explore the placement of a new elementary school Lewiston hopes to build in five years.
“The original charge was lost somewhere along the way,” Scott said. If the city does build a new school in five years, “we'll need to redistrict again.”
Connors agreed, saying the solution to find 80 students to fill McMahon classrooms could have been done “fairly simply,” but this plan would impact “three times that number.” Connors added that he was bothered by perceptions from parents that they didn't get straight answers at the parent meetings.
Elizabeth Dube said her concern was “with the process. The mayor mentioned, and I can't believe I'm echoing him, that people needed to be on board.” When people are not, Dube said, the outcome is not as good.
Taylor said Longley Elementary has the highest number of ELL students, “and Longley's not going to be affected. So it seems very silly to me that we're putting so much effort” into sending students to different schools.
Her four children went to Longley “and my children did just fine,” she said. Lewiston teachers at all schools are equally good, she said. The argument that redistricting would give students a better opportunity “to me, is silly.”