Board of Education members moved resoundingly Thursday night to draft a letter to state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor asking whether the school district’s two racially unbalanced schools might qualify for an exemption from having to submit a plan to address that disparity.
A state racial-balance mandate requires action from the district to address unbalanced student populations at Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools. Those two schools are designated by the stateDepartment of Education as unbalanced because their minority student populations top the district’s minority average by more than 25 percentage points. Developing a plan to close that disparity has dominated the board’s agenda in the last few months.
In recent weeks, however, board members Peter Sherr and Peter von Braun and a number of parents have argued that Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon meet the Department of Education’s “unique” school definition, which is outlined in the regulations of the racial balance mandate. They assert that those regulations exempt unique schools from having to comply with the racial-balance mandate.
Board member Steven Anderson made a motion Thursday for the board to submit a letter to Pryor informing him that the district believes New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue to be unique and asking him to “verify” that they meet that designation and are therefore not required to submit a racial-balance plan.
“It is an answer that we need to get, rather than to keep tossing it around as a possible solution,” Anderson said. “It’s time to call the question.”
Sherr agreed with the intent of the letter, but advocated for a different strategy.
“I believe we are in compliance because we have magnet schools, and I believe we should put the onus on the state in terms of our compliance,” he said.
Leslie Moriarty, the board’s chairman, argued against Sherr’s preferred approach.
“We’re going to ask the state for a view — I think it should be a question, not an assertion,” she said. “I don’t believe we should go forward and assert this, because then we’re basically throwing down the gauntlet saying, `This is how we’re going forward.’ “
While acknowledging that he did not think New Lebanon and Hamilton Avenue were unique schools, Anderson continued to push for support of his motion.
“I think we need an answer to this question,” he added. “It’s way past time to get a `yes’ or `no’ and then figure out our next step.”
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In one apparent compromise, Anderson agreed to modify his motion to ask Moriarty to “promptly” submit a letter to Pryor to “clarify” that, per state regulations, Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon are unique schools. The letter would also ask the commissioner to “promptly” submit his opinion.