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School Boundary Changes: Arlington Superintendent Gets Feedback

Murphy will make his recommendation on the changes to the Arlington School Board on March 21.

Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Pat Murphy held a town hall Monday night to hear what parents had to say about potential changes to school attendance zones that would affect seven North Arlington schools.

They had a lot to say.

"It's healthy," Murphy told Patch afterward. "I always feel you come away with something."

A few hundred parents, many of them with children at Glebe or Taylor elementary schools, showed up to voice their concerns or show support or opposition for various plans to change school boundaries.

[More: School Boundary Changes: Latest Recommendations Released]

The town hall was at Williamsburg Middle School, which in years ahead will share its campus with a new elementary school. That new school is part of a larger effort to deal with overcrowding.

Three sets of boundary changes are on the table: one staff recommendation and two slight variations of that.

Some of the proposals have caused heartburn to parents who live within walking distance to one school and worry their child will be bused two or three miles away to a different school. Several said they bought their home in a specific neighborhood just so their child could attend a specific school.

With only so much available and affordable land on which to place a new school, the Williamsburg campus was chosen despite its location near the permitter of the county. Several Arlington schools are close to the county's edge, meaning more centrally located elementary schools like Glebe and Taylor are more likely to be affected by any change.

And not everyone affected is happy about it.

"You've taken three parts of the Glebe community and pitted them against each other," said Peter Leff. "It's really tearing at the Glebe community, and that's unfortunate."

[More: Proposed School Boundary Changes Get Heated Reaction from North Arlington]

Many parents repeated points they made in a late-February meeting on the same topic: Why not expand Glebe rather than Arlington Traditional? Why aren't choice schools on the table? Why bus children who are happier and healthier walking to school?

Choice schools like Arlington Traditional will be looked at in the coming years, officials said. Parents responded by asking them to postpone any boundary changes until all the schools in North Arlington have been examined.

"Choice schools are great," said Meghan Keller, a Taylor parent. "But we may determine next year that they are a luxury that we can no longer afford at the expense of the neighborhoods that are the life and breath of Arlington."

Murphy started the night by saying officials would continue to collect information to inform the next stages of the multi-year boundary process.

"This is something the school system will need to address for several years," he said. "… Consider tonight that first rung on the ladder."

Murphy sat in a chair in the middle of the Williamsburg auditorium stage for more than an hour, nodding and reflecting on the various comments, though not directly responding. One woman pointed out the lighting made him appear to be in the shadows while staff members were in the light; he immediately switched places and said his intention was to be out front.

Murphy said afterward that his instructions from the school board were to adjust the boundaries at seven schools to accommodate the new elementary school, and that remains his focus.

Any change of focus — putting choice schools on the table, for instance — would have to come at the direction of the school board. And the likelihood of that happening likely isn't great, considering the many processes over the past two years that helped formulate the schools' long-range capital plan.

The school system has held about 20 meetings on the boundary changes. Meg Tuccillo, who retired from being assistant superintendent for administrative services last year, even held office hours in Starbucks on eight occasions.

Parents lined up to talk with Murphy one-on-one afterward. Keller said she thought the night was productive.

"I'm going to be optimistic right now," she told Patch. "It was good for parents to be able to talk directly to the superintendent."

Murphy will present his recommendation on boundary changes to the Arlington School Board on March 21.

The school board will hold public hearings on Murphy's proposal on April 3 and April 23.

Meghan Keller March 12, 2013 at 10:16 PM
I’d like to add a comment to clarify my point about choice schools. This quote is accurate, but it overstates my position. My position is that we might be able to do better than the options currently on the table, specifically as they relate to Taylor and Glebe, once we bring the choice schools into the mix and can look at the boundary issues together. My recommendation is that we stop short of finalizing any one plan (or at least portions of the plan so that ES#1 planning can continue), until after the choice school decisions are made next year. As was clear last night, the vast majority of the changes have broad community support, but there are real concerns that specific Glebe and Taylor communities are very negatively impacted by these changes. We’ve gotten so much smarter through this process, and I suspect we’ll get even smarter next year once the choice school decisions are made. We may find there’s flexibility in how some of the lines in the current recommendations need to be drawn. I believe the community buy-in will be much broader if the community feels heard and can see that APS is really looking at the big picture and making the best decision possible, prioritizing our close-knit neighborhoods, even if it means tweaking the process slightly.

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