School board members raise diversity questions over rezoning 

School board member Kay Abbitt in a recent meeting.
School board member Kay Abbitt in a recent meeting.
Photo by Glory Reitz

The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) heard rezoning impact updates from multiple district staff members at a workshop on Monday. The board will vote on a first reading of the proposed new zoning at its regular meeting on Tuesday. 

After a series of community input sessions, board members and staff have gathered general trends of citizens’ concerns and Anntwanique Edwards, chief of equity, inclusion, and community engagement, said part of the workshop’s purpose was to offer transparency to the board and the public. 

“Part of the reason for having the various departments’ staff to come in and to share is to make it clear to the public that we are not overlooking those particular aspects of trying to come up with a final plan for the board to vote upon,” Edwards told the board. She said the feedback from community input sessions is impacting the staff’s everyday work toward rezoning. 

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Though the board will vote on a first reading of updated zoning maps on Tuesday, the maps could change any number of times before the final vote on Dec. 5. Staff told the board Monday that there should be another update to the elementary school map before Tuesday’s first reading. 

Staff members reported expected impacts of rezoning to the board, but hedged their predictions by noting that they cannot set solid expectations until the plan is finalized. 

Dontarrious Rowls, transportation director, said depending on how the rezoning settles, bus routes may have to add stops. He also noted that if the district chooses to bring more students from outside Gainesville into the city for school, that will add ride time. Each bus the district adds costs about $108,000, with riders this year costing an average of $1,600 each. 

Exceptional Student Education (ESE) programs could require significant shifts, depending on where the new zoning lines fall permanently, as each student has different needs that must be met at whatever school they attend. Kathy Black, ESE executive director for the district, said she has mostly heard from parents of autistic students, who struggle with change. 

Black said the biggest impact will be on self-contained ESE units because not every school currently has one, but any student could bring that need to their new school. The district currently has 23 ESE self-contained classrooms, a number Black said she does not anticipate going down, but which could rise. 

Jennifer Steptoe, Title I director, said some schools could lose or gain Title I eligibility at a change of 10 students. She said she will be working closely with the state reporting department to accurately represent student enrollment after rezoning, but that the comprehensive rezoning could significantly affect allocations for multiple schools. 

Much of the board’s discussion on Monday revolved around the need for diversity and higher achievement in schools, particularly on the east side of Gainesville. Board chairwoman Tina Certain said that years ago zoning was used to perpetuate segregation, and that if the district is not careful it will keep following the same path. 

Board member Kay Abbitt said the district cannot solve a lack of diversity and lower achievement from Eastside students through rezoning. She said rather than trying to rezone students from the west side of town to go east for school or vice versa, the schools need to solve an underlying problem of achievement to make themselves desirable. 

Multiple parents at rezoning input sessions have claimed they bought their houses so their children could go to highly ranked schools. Abbitt said the district needs to make all its schools high-ranking and desirable, so parents willingly move into eastern zones. 

Abbitt argued that moving children from Eastside into western schools would only destabilize their lives and make them feel displaced, and that moving students the other way would only prompt parents to put their children in charter schools.  

“You can move west to east, those parents will pull their kids out of public school so fast, and I don’t blame them,” Abbitt said. “I wouldn’t put my kid in an underperforming school. I don’t want any kid in an underperforming school.” 

Certain said magnet programs do not create real diversity, instead causing a “false equivalency” by placing more already high performing students in low performing schools, but not integrating them with the rest of the students. 

Board Member Diyonne McGraw said low-rated schools need to get their academics and discipline in hand, and push past the assumption that Western schools are better than those in the East. She said that change would make the rezoning process less controversial because parents are more willing to move schools if they have confidence in the new school. 

“Academics are what parents are totally concerned about,” McGraw said. 

McGraw said educators at low-rated schools are working hard and making progress, but that change will not happen overnight. She said those schools are not doing as badly as they are assumed to be, and that they need to market the good things they are doing. 

Edwards agreed, telling the board the educators at Eastside schools are committed and doing good work, and that the district needs to work harder to show that side of the picture. 

“I think that many times people have an image or perception of schools that is not really the reality,” Edwards said. “And when you work within a building day by day, you recognize that some of the information and the publication of what that school is like is very different than when you’re there each day.” 

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When are they going to stop tiptoeing around the real reason that the westside parents won’t allow their children to go to eastside schools? They are terrified of the neighborhoods that the schools are located in or near.

Shannon Boal

Some good plain talk going on there . Good luck!