ANC Votes in Support of Neighborhood Schools

May 8 ANC Meeting

Discussion of the Deputy Mayor for Education’s Student Assignment and School Boundaries Review Process drew a sizeable crowd to the May meeting of Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 3E, filling the black box theater at Woodrow Wilson High School. Audience members attended to provide comment on a proposed resolution put forward by ANC Vice-Chair Jonathan Bender that supported matter-of-right schools, opposed proposals stemming from the boundary review process, and called for a reboot of the process under the next mayoral administration.

In presenting the draft resolution, Bender criticized the boundary review process for reaching beyond its mandate to examine districting to propose a complete overhaul of school assignment policies. The ANC rejected out of hand two proposals that would implement lotteries, noting that those proposals would not address the problem of access to high-quality neighborhood schools and would negatively impact communities and working parents. 

Bender further criticized the review process for spending inadequate time developing revised elementary school boundaries and for its failure to gather, analyze or present demographic data as part of the boundary setting process.

Rather than proceed with what Commissioner Sam Serebin termed a “fatally flawed” process, Bender’s resolution called upon the current and forthcoming District administrations not to take “any action on the basis of the Boundary Review once completed.” Instead it called for the creation of a “’Marshall Plan’ to ensure that all students have a high-quality matter-of-right school in their neighborhood.” From the ANC discussion and text of the resolution, one can assume that this Marshall Plan would consist not only of a sizeable financial investment in infrastructure and technology, but also a reexamination and redevelopment of educational policies and approaches across the District. Once a plan were in place and implementation begun, the resolution would call upon the next administration to redraw school boundaries based upon a transparent, analytical review of demographics and the impact of changed boundaries on school communities.

Community members in attendance at the ANC meeting praised the commission for taking up the issue of the boundary review and supporting neighborhood schools, but were highly critical of the draft resolution. Several criticized the draft for being too lengthy, overly “complicated,” and failing to state clearly at the outset the commission’s demands. Others took issue with language that they interpreted as disparaging community members, characterizing them, in their opinion, as overly emotional – for example, describing families’ view of the boundary changes as “existential.” Bender clarified that this was neither the sentiment nor the intent of the text, and ultimately revised specific language deemed objectionable.

As pointed as those comments were, the primary areas of contention, however, related to whether Janney Elementary School could or should be characterized as overcrowded, and the redistricting of current Janney families out of the elementary school’s boundaries.

In making the case that the boundary review process should have been based on clear, credible demographic data, the draft resolution noted that flawed data from the D.C. Public Schools previously resulted in Janney Elementary being nearly 125 students over capacity, despite the completion of a significant expansion of the school. A subsequent addition, currently under construction, became necessary to accommodate present enrollment. The resolution posited that with further growth anticipated in Tenleytown, parents needed to be confident that new boundaries accurately reflect demographic trends.

Community members attending the ANC meeting disputed the resolution’s characterization of Janney as overcrowded – either presently or in the future – fearing that labeling the school as such would support the redistricting of current families out of the school’s boundaries. They stated that completion of the new addition would be sufficient for current enrollment. Further, the proposed boundaries for Janney would only move approximately 20 current students out of the school – a number that these parents advocated Janney could easily accommodate.

Commission Chair Matthew Frumin, who recused himself from debate and vote on the resolution due to his position on the DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment, shared recently released enrollment data submitted to the committee. The figures indicated that even factoring in a 10 percent set aside for out-of-boundary students Janney could accommodate 75 to 90 more children within the proposed new boundary. Data regarding population, capacity and projected growth for schools under existing boundaries was not available.

Discussion of the proposed resolution became heated as Janney parents demanded that the ANC state explicitly its opposition to redistricting current families out of the elementary school. Commissioners Bender and Tom Quinn responded that they were not necessarily opposed to moving families out of Janney, depending upon the justification for the change. However, they could not form an opinion without credible data to demonstrate why the move would be necessary and what the impact would be on other families within the community. Tempers flared on both sides as parents accused commissioners of failing to advocate on behalf of their constituents and Commissioner Quinn lashed out at what he described as hyperbolic rhetoric from families who would be potentially redistricted.

The heated debate highlighted a lack of data and analysis regarding school enrollment trends. Community representatives and ANC members shared frustration with the failure of the review process to provide concrete numbers to assess or explain proposed boundaries.

After nearly two hours of discussion, the ANC tabled debate on the resolution to allow other agenda items to proceed. Discussion resumed close to 11 p.m., as residents and commissioners parsed the resolution’s wording well past midnight. Despite hours of debate, the original draft and the final version of the resolution were remarkably similar. There were minimal substantive changes to the language, which retained the ANC’s call for a reboot of the boundary review process under the next mayoral administration.

The largest revision removed text referring to the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty and Superintendent Michelle Rhee, which was deemed as unnecessary and too politically charged. Other revisions tempered, but did not wholly remove, statements regarding overcrowding at Janney, clarified upfront and with stronger language the commission’s “serious concern” with the boundary review, and emphasized the need for “sound analysis and data” as the basis of a new review process. While the final resolution did not meet fully their demands, community members appeared ultimately to leave the meeting pleased with the revised draft, which passed with the support of four commissioners; Frumin abstained.  The full text of the resolution is available online.

The DC Advisory Committee on Student Assignment is reviewing public input on the initial boundary recommendations, which will inform a set of revised proposals to be released in June. The public will have opportunity to provide comment on those proposals through July. The District government anticipates releasing the final student assignment and school boundary plan in September.