When I first heard that Alan Stein had agreed to chair the Fayette County Public Schools’ redistricting committee, I thought: Has he lost his mind?
“That’s what everybody says,” Stein said with a laugh. “To some degree that is still a question being asked, mostly by me.”
Stein, a business consultant who brought minor-league baseball to Lexington, is one of the most civic-minded people I know. He championed a school tax increase. He helped revive Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass. He is Commerce Lexington’s chair-elect.
But few tasks are as complicated and thankless as redrawing school boundaries. No matter what happens, somebody will be angry.
Redistricting is an emotional issue, because it affects children’s futures and parents’ home values. It can bring out ugly issues of race, class and selfishness. Even at its best, it involves change, and nobody likes change.
The year-long process is coming to a close, so I sat down with Stein this week to talk about it.
In the past, Fayette County school officials redrew boundaries and then sought public comment. This time, the school board appointed a 24-member citizens committee to study the issues and make recommendations.
The school board gave the committee a list of guiding principles to consider. “They’re all over the place, and they’re contradictory,” Stein said.
The committee decided to focus on a few of them: minimize disruption; try to keep neighborhoods together and kids close to home; and achieve more balance in race and income among schools when possible.
One thing the committee did not consider was how redistricting would affect individual property values. “For us, it’s a zero-sum game district-wide,” he said.
Parents want their children to attend high-performing schools, rather than low-performing schools. Knowing what makes the difference is not rocket science, Stein said. It comes down to school leadership, parent involvement and resources.
“All of these issues of performance in schools have virtually nothing to do with race,” Stein said. “It’s about poverty. It’s how involved can the parents be, how involved do they choose to be and what resources can they bring to the table.”
Stein cites the example of Ashland Elementary, which was one of the district’s worst-performing schools in the 1990s. Earlier this year, one ranking service rated it as Kentucky’s best public elementary school.
Previous redistricting increased the affluence of its student population somewhat. But the main reasons for Ashland’s turnaround were a good principal and faculty and neighborhood parents who decided to send their kids there and get involved.
“It’s a good example of what can happen,” Stein said. “Every school in our district has the opportunity to be successful.”
Still, poverty is a big issue, and it is getting worse. A decade ago, 27 percent of Fayette students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. Now, it is 54 percent. By 2020, it is projected to be 60 percent.
“We’re losing the middle class,” Stein said. “The income inequality in America is just obscene. It’s obscene to me, and I’m one of the rich guys.”
Some of Lexington’s deepest poverty pockets are in minority neighborhoods.
“Most people would be extraordinarily surprised to learn how segregated, unfortunately, Lexington is,” he said. “You can see it starkly on our maps.”
Stein is proud of how transparent the redistricting process has been, with four listening sessions, dozens of always-open meetings and more than 1,000 written comments from the public.
He thinks this redistricting will achieve good results: less overcrowding at many schools, more kids at schools close to their homes and fewer split-up neighborhoods.
When final lines are drawn, Stein estimates that only 4,000 to 7,000 of the district’s 40,000 students will change schools, and about 2,300 of those will be going to the new schools.
“We’re not going to be as successful as I personally would like us to be in terms of attaining a balance in socio-economic diversity,” he said. “But we’re going to be a heck of a lot better than what we were.”
Stein expects the committee to recommend moving some special academic programs from one school to another to attract affluent families and improve socio-economic diversity.
Parents in some neighborhoods have been especially vocal in the process.
“All of these neighborhoods print up colored T-shirts to show solidarity or whatever; it’s almost comical,” Stein said. “I wish I had started a T-shirt business.
“But we can’t pay attention to the noise. It’s going to be there no matter what we do. You just say let’s try to do what’s right for all 40,000 kids as best we can.”