Task force traverses ‘minefield’ in school rezoning

Monday, April 14, 2008 at 1:48am

One of the most controversial concepts associated with public education in Nashville is currently playing out in a small community task force.

The Metro Nashville Public Schools Rezoning Task Force, formed in January, is charged with presenting a comprehensive student assignment plan to the Board of Education this spring.

The task force was given a preliminary deadline of having a plan to present by the end of April, but due to the complexity of the job, task force chair and school board member Mark North recently asked the board for an extra month. Board members appeared to be willing to extend the time frame, and several acknowledged the difficulty of the task force’s work.

Creating a student assignment plan is, in North’s words, “a minefield.” One of the issues at the heart of student assignment is the concept of neighborhood schools. While some in Nashville want all kids to be zoned to the school closest to the kids geographically, others say local schools risk being “re-segregated” — and that children risk being isolated in their neighborhood communities without being connected to other people and resources.

The task force is designed to bring all the issues of student assignment in public schools — including neighborhood schools, overcrowding in high-growth areas and questions of building efficiency — closer to families and communities, rather than being created solely by the school district.

One panel member is State Rep. Mike Turner, who earlier this year proposed legislation that would require the school district to allow kids to attend schools nearest to their homes. Turner later publicly said that he planned to hold back on pushing the legislation through, because he wanted to allow the task force to do its work.

Task force member George Price, however, believes that moving the district entirely to community schools is a form of re-segregation. He said it is important to him to foster consensus among task force members, but that he also will not support a plan that he believes will cause harm.

“My allegiance is to my community. If I don’t think it’s going to work, I’m going to tell them,” Price said. “All those [resources] that we have in Bellevue, you’ve got to have it in the inner city, or else the community’s not going to buy it.”

Considering the range and gravity of issues at play, North said it is a challenge to keep the task force from getting overwhelmed.

“I trust that the [task force] process is going to work,” North said. “We are a zoning task force. Zoning can’t solve every situation, every school situation, everything that the school district needs. We remind ourselves of that quite often during the process. We are there to do school assignment, and that is complicated enough.”

Since January, the task force has typically met on a weekly basis, and considered the district cluster by cluster. While the task force has voted on and approved motions related to each cluster, North said the new plan is being considered holistically and will probably be “tweaked” until the very end.

As such, it remains to be seen whether the recommendations of the task force will return community schools to the district, whether fully or partially. The task force is composed of one individual appointed by each school board member, plus one representative each for former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia and Mayor Karl Dean. This group is in addition to North.

For task force member Marc Hill, who in addition to serving on the task force works as chief education officer of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said responsible financial stewardship and efficient use of school property is a high priority for him.

“If we have empty space, that’s financial resources that should be going to the kids in classrooms,” Hill said.

The task force typically meets every Friday, from 5 to 7 p.m. Despite the significance of the discussions, meetings are not well-attended. At the task force’s most recent meeting, on Friday, the audience consisted of school board member Karen Johnson, school board candidate Cordenus Eddings, and parent Tommy Boulton.

Boulton said he was at the meeting because his children attend schools at Glendale, which the task force was discussing at that meeting.

“My son lives in this area. It’s affecting where he goes to school,” Boulton said. “I know a lot of people are against busing. … Diversity is a key to me.”

And as a school board member, Johnson said she “feels good” about extending the deadline for the task force’s recommendations.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “It’s going to have an impact on a lot of families.”

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