First reading of redistricting policy sparks backlash

Community advocates for a more equitable approach

After more than a year of work, Assistant Superintendent LaCoyya Weathington presented to the school board an update to recommendations for middle-school redistricting that would move A. Russell Knight (ARK) Elementary School students from Carusi Middle to Rosa Middle School. The policy was approved on first reading, but will have its second reading and vote for approval at the Jan. 24 meeting.

The move is meant to prevent overcrowding at Carusi in the 2025-’26 school year, which could happen based on current numbers from last month. The revised recommendation was discussed again at the Jan. 3 policy committee meeting and the Jan. 10 board of education session.

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Board member Adam Greenbaum pointed out that having Knight students at Rosa would actually push the latter closer to capacity (96 percent) than Carusi (93 percent) would be without the revision. Weathington explained that the numbers don’t reflect items like how many kids would be served lunch or what the physical building spaces looked like.

“There are also special classes in that building (Carusi) that we would like to leave in that building,” Weathington noted. “That’s another big significant issue in that building.”

Although having Knight students attend Rosa would bring the latter closer to capacity, Superintendent Dr. Joseph Meloche noted during committee meetings that Rosa is already serving a similar number of kids now, whereas Carusi would pick up an additional 22 students.

“If we’re going to make a change, it makes sense to make it in preparation for the fall so that we have sufficient room at Rosa to accommodate the students who will be attending,” Weathington said. 

She acknowledged that the move would also make special ed programs more comparable at each middle school. ARK is physically closer to Rosa than Carusi, but due to not having sidewalks near the school, all students would need to be bussed. The reason for revising the recommendation now is to have a decision in time for bus route bids that will take place in February. 

But parents felt differently about the recommendation and requested more time to reevaluate elementary-school redistricting and come up with a solution better than moving Knight students to Rosa in the next few years, since overcrowding is expected in 2025-’26. 

Weathington shared demographics of both the current and proposed recommendations for the three middle schools for each year leading up to 2025-’26 and how they looked both from a racial and economic standpoint. 

Currently, 27.95 percent of Carusi’s population is economically disadvantaged compared with 12.27 percent at Rosa and 16.21 percent at Beck. Projections for moving Knight students to  Carusi are estimated to be 25.17 percent in 2023-’24 and 14.91 percent at Rosa for the disadvantaged students.In the 2024-’25 school year, Carusi would have 23.39 percent economically disadvantaged students compared to 15.85 percent at Rosa, and 21.14 percent at Carusi for 2025-’26 and 16.77 percent at Rosa for economically disadvantaged students.

During the meeting’s public comment, resident Anne Geraci explained that the recommendation to move Knight students from Carusi to Rosa would further segregate the town and violate the intent of Cherry Hill’s We Are One campaign to promote inclusivity, diversity and equitable performance in schools because in her findings, ARK is the most economically advantaged and academically high performing sending school to Carusi. 

“ARK is the school with the smallest percentage of students that qualify for free and reduced lunch out of all the schools currently sent to Carusi,” Geraci said. “Sending ARK to Rosa only widens the gap between Carusi and the other two schools.

“ … Based on the charts provided (at previous meetings), the threat becomes a split between one underperforming school, the one with the largest economically disadvantaged population, and two economically advantaged schools–based on the newest NJSLA scores–that performed very well.” 

By moving it to Rosa, Rosa and Beck would be at an economic and academic advantage compared to Carusi, which may lower Carusi’s ratings and deter people from moving to the west side of town. Several others also argued that the west side had been neglected, and acknowledged that the current board, while racially diverse, had no representation from the west side.

Geraci outlined a negative ripple effect: If Carusi loses its highest-performing sending school, she pointed out, NJSLA scores will go down, school ranking decreases, and property values on the west side of town will decrease.

Geraci’s sentiments were echoed throughout the meeting by other community members who disagreed with the recommendation.

Residents Amanda Greenstein and Anne Einhorn referenced a social media post by a board member prior to their elections that acknowledged that Knight would overcrowd both Rosa and Carusi. 

“ARK is not the only school that has this problem, and that’s why it’s one of the vestiges of this board to do what is right, to do the hard work, to stop kicking the can down the way and do elementary-school redistricting first,” Greenstein said.

In other news:

  • Board recognitions included West High School Coach Katina Anthony being named Coach of the Year by the South Jersey Soccer Coach’s Association; West’s marching band, which achieved fourth out of 16 bands at the New Jersey State Championships,  and East’s marching band, which had the top score in the NJ Group A Championships.
  • The district approved a $100,000 grant for East stadium lighting.
  • The district appointed John Palladino as solicitor for school construction projects, an appointment funded by bond referendum funds.
  • Committee meetings will be held on Feb. 6 and 7; the split will mean two meetings per night rather than four in one night.

The next board of education session will be on Jan. 24 at 6:30 p.m. 

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