In the face of continued criticism, the School Committee voted Thursday, June 14, to make the first changes to boundaries for the town's seven elementary schools since the late 1980s.
The approved map, called draft No. 7, of 11 considered since the process began last November, takes effect at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. It uses "buffer zones," or areas in which students could attend a school the administration chooses. The aim is to equalize enrollment and open the rebuilt Thompson School with the state-required 380 students. Students enrolled before the 2013-14 school year will be grandfathered in to the current district map, as will their siblings.
School Committee members, before voting unanimously, had high praise for the volunteer Redistricting Advisory Committee, who had worked on the latest until the preceding Tuesday evening. Member Jeff Thielman echoed other members when he said that draft map No. 7 is not perfect, but "it's our best shot at equalizing class sizes."
He also said that the next step is work out policies that can address concerns that many parents have raised. Member Jud Pierce said the policies & procedures subcommittee will begin meeting this summer. "Come to our meetings," he said. "Breathe life into our lifeless maps."
Fifteen residents spoke during public participation -- 10 raising continued objections and five expressing support.
Among those in the former group was Richard Eckhardt, who said: "Hundreds of people have provided feedback against buffers. This is not what the people of Arlington want.... You are duty-bound to vote against it ....
"You have the authority to inflict this on us; do you have the vision" not to do so?
He said voters would remember this in future elections. He suggested there might be a referendum, though he allowed he did not expect legal challenges. "We need more discussion," he said.
Among the supporters of the plan was Roger Khazan, who said he and neighbors organized to oppose the plan last fall, but after watching the process, he said, "We all were wrong." He said he found the Redistricting Advisory Committee "very responsive."
Before public participation, Superintendent Kathy Bodie outlined the chief goals of redistricting and to note the position taken June 12 by the advisory committee -- "strong opposition," she termed it, to oppose fixed lines in the final map, as well as supper buffers because of flexibility.
Draft map 7 shows current boundary lines and does not show letters designating buffer zones used in previous maps. Cross-hatched lines indicate buffers.
She updated the committee about the advisory panel's work. She said draft map 6E includes zones B and C, near Route 2. The final map eliminates them as buffers. If retained, they would have resulted in "fractured neighborhoods," she said.
Member William Hayner said that whatever the committee decided tonight: "Next year, it's going to change."
Comments from the public were limited to two minutes per person. Those opposed ranged from concerns about safety to neighborhood dislocation, comments heard since December.
Thomas Kragh said he had spoken with firefighters at the Park Avenue station who had expressed concern about accidents and estimated it would cost six figures to make the crosswalks workable. He was among 65 people who signed this statement:
"The following people expressly endorse elimination of Buffer H and adjustments to J to provide for safe walks to school. The following support investigation and implementation of alternative methods of rebalancing, if added rebalancing flexibility is required."
Greg Thompson asked the zone H be removed and that the schools establish innovation schools to help attract students who may face an overcrowded school.
Nate Wood said the Brackett/Dallin buffer in which he lives would create uncertainty, not flexibility.
The potential impact buffers might have on real estate values was not raised by the public June 14, as it had been May 31.
Since the May meeting, Bodie has said she contacted real-estate agents Brookline and Newton, which use buffers, to see what the impact has been. She reported they said there has not been an impact, one way of the other. Committee member Paul Schlichtman had essentially the same view June 14 when comparing Brackett and Bishop values.
Following the June 14 meeting, YourArlington discussed that issue with a Lockeland Avenue resident who owns two homes in a buffer. "We'll just see what happens when I try to sell," he said. "They find out it's in a buffer, and the head down the street."
At the meeting, Dallin parent Rebecca Peterson was among the minority there supporting the redistricting changes. She cited a letter signed by 47 people who she said agree with her.
Before the committee vote, Bodie said that in the light of safety concerns, she would ask the selectmen's Transportation Advisory Committee to review problem areas. She added that, if conditions warrant, she would add a traffic supervisor, saying that occurred at Hardy in the current school year.
Schlichtman called Arlington "a victim of our own success," having increased enrollment faster than expected, spurred in part by overall educational excellence.
In other business, the committee voted, 7-0, to name the library of the Thompson School after William E. Shea, a longtime member of the Permanent Town Building Committee. The motion, by Thielman, called Shea "a driving force behind the effort to rebuild Arlington's elementary schools, and devoted advocate for quality education for our town's young people."
The issue was revoted following a June 7 vote because the issue had to go before the town's Public Memorials Committee, where it was approved.
Illness forced Shea to resign from the building committee, where he has served for about 15 years, and the Human Rights Commission. He was a member of the latter since it was founded in 1993.
This story was published Friday, June 15, 2012.