D.C. mayoral race injects uncertainty into school boundary overhaul

As the District begins its first overhaul of school boundaries in four decades, parents have been flocking to community meetings, voicing anxiety about what the ­changes might mean for their children and their property values. The teeth-gnashing could intensify next week, when officials plan to release the first set of proposals for changing where city students attend school.

Even as the proposals are about to become public, there is no guarantee that the boundary process will yield any change at all. The final say will rest with whichever mayoral candidate wins election in November, meaning it could be Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) or someone else.

Gray is slated to announce new boundaries in September, but they would not take effect until fall 2015, months after the next mayor is inaugurated. And none of Gray’s challengers in Tuesday’s closely contested Democratic primary is willing to commit to any plan — or a timetable — sight unseen.

“We’re going to have to make some decisions around boundaries. Does it have to be by 2015? I don’t think so,” said D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), Gray’s leading primary challenger.

Gray administration officials say the city must redraw its school boundaries because they have grown increasingly unworkable as traditional schools have closed, charter schools have flourished and demographics have shifted dramatically.

Some schools, such as H.D. Woodson High in Northeast, have tiny boundary zones that, compounded with other issues, make it difficult to draw enough students. Almost all Northwest schools are overcrowded, some to the verge of not being able to accommodate the students who have a right to attend them.

“It simply needs to done,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith, who is leading the overhaul, adding that if done right, it could help accelerate school improvement.

Even if Gray prevails Tuesday, he would face a challenge from council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) in the general election. And Catania, describing himself as “very skeptical” of the boundary overhaul, said he would focus on improving schools before revising attendance zones and feeder patterns. Only about one-quarter of the city’s students attend their assigned school.

“I won’t support a plan that moves children from a higher-performing to a lower-performing school,” Catania said. “Out of fairness to the work that has been done, I would be willing to look at the plan. But I think the emphasis should have been on improving programming, not on redrawing boundaries.”

The boundary overhaul is shot through with tensions over race and class, and it has spurred something close to a panic among parents who believe the changes could cut off access to well-regarded schools, particularly Alice Deal Middle and Woodrow Wilson High in Northwest.

Smith has faced many parents at recent community meetings who have threatened to leave the city if they don’t like the outcome of the process. She has acknowledged that it is not going to be popular or easy.

An advisory group has been meeting with Smith for four months and is scheduled to unveil several concrete policy proposals, complete with maps, on April 5, four days after the D.C. primary.

“This has to be the worst time to do this process,” said Faith Hubbard, a Ward 5 activist who serves on the advisory group. She said she hopes the next mayor honors the work that goes into building a final plan.

While the proposals could redraw lines on a map, they also could fundamentally change the policies that determine which schools city students can attend. One policy proposal could, for example, emphasize that students attend their neighborhood schools, while another could focus more on giving families the choice of several schools.

Residents will have a chance to give feedback on those proposals before the committee settles on a preliminary decision in May and again before the panel makes final recommendations to the mayor in July.

Matthew Frumin, a Ward 3 parent who is also on the advisory group, acknowledged that the mayoral race hangs over the group’s work. But no matter who wins, Frumin said, it’s important that the boundary discussion continues.

“At long last, we are poised to have a vigorous citywide debate about the shape of the education infrastructure we seek,” he said. “The alternative is just to drift where the river is taking us whether we want to go there or not.”

Bowser said she’d want to show parents a plan for improving schools before signing off on boundary changes. She also has endorsed requiring charter schools to offer a neighborhood enrollment preference. She said while she appreciates choice, she wants to see a policy adopted that will ensure predictability for parents.

“I wouldn’t say stop it now, because it’s already so far along,” Bowser said of the boundary process. “But I’m going to look at the recommendations with a fresh set of eyes.”

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a mayoral candidate who has polled a distant third behind Bowser and Gray , said he would consider whatever Gray recommends. But he wants to see a policy that ensures quality neighborhood elementary schools, and he wants more predictable routes to good middle schools, including policies that allow traditional elementaries to feed into charter middle schools.

Among other mayoral candidates, council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) declined requests for an interview, and council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) said that while he would respect the work of the boundary advisory committee, he would like to see the city pay more attention to improving chronically low-performing schools.

Restaurateur Andy Shallal was more blunt: “I would put the whole boundary thing on hold. We need to not focus on boundaries but on fixing schools.”

Some parents have pushed for such a delay, while others say that the issue needs attention now.

Josh Louria would like to see the boundary discussion continue, even though he said it has spurred great anxiety in his Mount Pleasant neighborhood — one of a few areas east of Rock Creek Park whose students are sent to Deal and Wilson.

“I hope that it works out for us, but it’s more important that it works out for the city,” Louria said, adding that it is unfortunate that the discussion is playing out against the backdrop of a mayoral contest.

“The timing of this is absolutely horrid,” he said. “It would be a shame to chuck it and start from scratch.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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