Minutes after the approved the plan Tuesday night to move half of intermediate-school-bound children from Roosevelt Intermediate to Edison Intermediate, the board approved an unprecedented vote to apologize for the way it first announced the plan in 2009.
The 5-4 "sorry" vote was prompted by a request from BOE member David Finn, a Washington parent who was elected in 2009 following the original vote. Since the February 2009 vote, Washington area parents have been angered by the plan to move half of the students who would normally attend Roosevelt Intermediate to Edison Intermediate, as part of a plan to alleviate crowding at Edison Intermediate School.
"It might buy you some goodwill," Finn said to his colleagues.
Then the board members took their second vote on the issue, as mandated by in November, who ruled that the original vote was illegal, due to a procedural violation by the BOE.
This time, the 6-3 vote included "no" votes from Finn and fellow Washington-area BOE members Rich Mattessich and Mitch Slater. BOE Vice President Ann Cary and member Jane Clancy both voted for the apology, providing the needed votes for Finn's motion to pass. Cary and Clancy remained steadfast in their support of the redistricting.
The four remaining BOE members who voted for redistricting in 2009 and 2010 – board president Julia Walker, Ginny Leiz, Gary McCready and Alice Hunnicutt – all voted against the apology. Walker clarified that she was against the wording and had proposed amending Finn's motion to say the board will communicate better in the future, a proposal Finn objected to.
Cary and Clancy described how difficult the process has been for them.
"I spent many sleepless nights, Jane and I were on the phone for hours," Cary said. "We agonized, we did not take this lightly. I do feel bad that families are upset. There was one moment where I called Ginny and she said 'Ann you sound fragile,' and I was."
At the same time, Cary said she did not believe that she or the BOE did anything wrong with the original decision. Finn said that he did not believe the board members made the decision lightly in February 2009.
"It is hurtful to hear new board members say that the six members who have sat here the longest did not due our due diligence," Walker said.
The vote marked the first time anyone could remember the BOE voting to apologize to a constituency.
The vote to apologize capped an emotional debate, highlighted by claims that redistricting-related documents had been shredded. During the debate over the reaffirmation vote, Mattessich he had over the process used during the 2009 vote and said he was frustrated that he never got an explanation on why the Washington neighborhood was chosen for the redistricting. Mattessich had been an active parent advocate against the decision before his 2009 election to the board.
Mattessich reiterated prior comments that the documents he requested after joining the board did not contain studies regarding the other neighborhoods with relation to redistricting or minutes of committee meetings. Mattessich said at a November board meeting that he had been told the files did not exist.
"I have yet to be able to meet a group of people who can clean-up files on such a regular basis," Mattessich said.
Mattessich's comments on the document history provoked an angry response from Cary, who chaired the board's long range planning committee during the process.
"I take offense at your suggestion that the long-range planning committee cleaned up our files," she said. "You've been on this board a year-and-a-half and you know we don't take written minutes of committee meetings. For you to suggest that we ripped up or shredded documents is outrageous."
Debate among board members aside, there is no timetable for when the board will draft the formal letter of apology to Washington residents. While the 2009 redistricting vote drew the ire of Washington residents, no Washington residents showed up for Tuesday night's meeting. The meeting had been moved from BOE headquarters on Elm Street to the high school cafeteria in anticipation of a large crowd.
Finn, Mattessich and Slater reiterated their earlier plan to continue the decision through June 2011 and have another study of the redistricting conducted. The trio had said that a new study should take in account the district's new financial plan – including state aid cuts – and new projections regarding intermediate school enrollment for the fall of 2011. The BOE has been planning for an enrollment bump, which will cause larger entering sixth grade classes at Edison in 2011 and 2013.
Finn also cited figures that show the BOE spending approximately $3 million more than the state-imposed 2 percent property tax cap for the 2011-2012 school year. He said this figure could lead to between 40 and 50 teachers being laid off.
"This decision could split this town and none of us want that," he said.
The BOE voted 6-3 against the amendment.
Walker said the BOE will form an ad hoc committee to draft a formal apology document to the Washington community, with Finn volunteering to write a first draft of the apology. Walker, citing the unprecedented nature of the vote to apologize, did not say when the apology would become final.
Walker said she understood the history of feelings from the Washington community, citing stories she had heard of past redistrictings that occurred before she moved to Westfield. She also gave context on the BOE's belief on the decision.
"I understand the hurt feelings," she said. "It is our responsibility to do what is right for the best interests of the district as a whole."