By ANGELA NIMS
Sunday Times Newspapers
RIVERVIEW — The white elephant known as school realignment that has been nipping at the heels of Riverview Board of Education was granted some official verbiage at the Jan. 10 school board meeting.
As parents of elementary students have been mobilizing, distributing fliers and taking to social media with their concerns, Supt. Russell Pickell sought to squelch rumors and provide some answers in a letter that was sent home with students.
Amy Laura-Frazier — board president before annual reorganization later in the meeting — began the meeting with a reading of the correspondence. The letter asserted no action on the elementary building realignment issue would be taken at the meeting. It went on to outline the purpose of the realignment, a question that repeatedly has been the topic of discourse among parents.
Pickell said that the possibility of realignment is being explored to “improve instructional delivery, improve student academic performance and increase the efficiency of the academic programming.”
A committee, consisting of 10 elementary teachers and three principals, have visited neighboring districts that have implemented the realignment strategy, grouping their elementary schools by age groups rather than by geographic area.
Though a presentation date of the committee’s findings was previously slated for some time in spring, Pickell wrote of a brisk upcoming schedule: The committee will share its findings Jan. 16 and collect feedback from other elementary school teachers. This will lead the way to community forum events, where a presentation of findings will be made and the community is invited to share their input.
• Feb. 6, 6 p.m. at Memorial Elementary, 13425 Colvin.
• Feb. 7, 6 p.m. at Huntington Elementary, 17752 Kennebec.
• Feb. 9, 6 p.m. at Forest Elementary, 19400 Hampton.
Once completed, the committee will reassess its findings and make a presentation to the school board on March 28.
For many Riverview elementary parents, that is where the train buckled, once again.
Community member Matt Zick spoke during the public speaking portion of the meeting, and talked of a promise from the board that has gone unfulfilled.
“At the March 22 (2016) meeting, when formation of a realignment committee was announced, it was stated the committee would include staff, administration and community members,” Zick said.
The plan of community representation within the committee was reasserted at the May meeting. Then-Trustee Shawn Filkins went so far as to collect the contact information of at least one parent who volunteered for the position.
Yet, the committee was formed, given nearly a year to perform research and will soon deliver its findings, all without a non-faculty member on the team.
“You’ll have your opportunity to add to that when all the information is presented to the community,” Pickell said. “But (the forum) isn’t going to be a point-out-the-problem session. We’re not doing (the realignment investigation) because we’re bored; we have actual problems. So, when you go to the forum, be ready to roll up your sleeves and try to find solutions.”
The response ushered in a flurry of questions. From the podium, Pilar Salaz-Martin asked, “If the committee excluded the parents and community members, why didn’t the board speak on behalf of us and demand we be included?”
On the topic of problems, Salaz-Martin asked, “Is our district in a financial hardship — or en route to one? Let us know.”
Elementary school parent Elizabeth Ashley suggested the board had more in its arsenal than it realizes.
“We don’t know what solution you’re looking for because we don’t know the problem,” Ashley said. “We can be your army, but not if we don’t know the problems being addressed.”
Test scores or finances?
Parents of elementary students have been grappling with what they feel is a lack of transparency, both in the process of discovery and in the very motivation for the look into the possibility of realignment.
Though Pickell cited strictly educational concerns, new board President Gary O’Brien expanded that focus.
“In general, the financial situation in Riverview is well known,” O’Brien said. “The balance isn’t where it should be. Bonds have come close to passing, but haven’t, so we have to make do.”
Those budget constraints have had some academic casualties, O’Brien said.
“We used to have a dedicated science class in the elementary, but we had to cut that, due to budget concerns,” O’Brien said. “If the realignment had less budget demands, there might be room to add a dedicated science class back in the mix.
Grosse Ile Township, Flat Rock Community and Garden City Public schools, which have implemented elementary grade realignment, were visited by the committee, and have become another focal point of the debate.
As some school testing scores are public, Parents Against Riverview Alignment has been crunching the numbers.
“The realignment solution is designed to solve problems with an imbalance in student population among elementary schools — I believe Grosse Ile had this problem — or to reduce cost,” P.A.R.A. member Jason Tackett said. “I can’t find a study that shows alignment was implemented to solve educational issues and most show mixed results in that area.”
Both sides agree that Riverview elementary schools could be improved. Out of 1,533 elementary schools in Michigan, Riverview’s three ranked 690, 1008 and 1023.
“Grosse Ile is much, much higher than we are,” O’Brien said.
Grosse Ile’s Meridian Elementary is ranked 65 out of the 1,533 Michigan elementary schools.
P.A.R.A.’s recent handout on the subject suggests Meridian also has a student-to-teacher ratio of 14.3-to-1. Riverview’s lowest elementary student-to-teacher ratio is 19.7-to-1 at Forest Elementary. The handout questioned whether a school with that high a student-to-teacher ratio should be up for comparison.
One year vs. one month
Pickell explained the realignment timeline.
“The people that are in the committee, they also have their own jobs,” he said. “They’re doing this in addition to their normal job. It’s not like we hired an outside firm. So, we’re giving them time. Being respectful.”
The timeline presented of a February community forum, followed by a final presentation in March, caused some parents worry. After Tuesday’s meeting, as parents compared notes.
“How many recommendations can we make in a month?” Shaina Jemps asked. “They get a year, we get a month?”
After the meeting, O’Brien responded to the questions of the night.
“There wasn’t an intentional oversight in not having parents on the committee,” O’Brien said. “These ingredients might be late to the party, but they have to be included in order to move forward.”
O’Brien insisted the coming calendar isn’t set it stone.
“If we need more meetings after the forums, then we’ll have more,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want anyone to say they weren’t heard. We want to know all the weaknesses of (the realignment). We need to get information from everyone and have complete confidence their input has been considered.”
(Angela Nims can be reached at [email protected].)