Does a school board decision to change a boundary for an upper-crust neighborhood set a bad precedent?
By Marisa Demarco
The flood of arguments just kept coming. Highland High School proponents see it as an issue of race and class, with the upper-crust Four Hills withdrawing from the diverse Southeast Heights school's district. Four Hills parents say they just want their kids to go to school together from kindergarten through 12th grade and have their homes within the Manzano High boundary. "White flight" was the phrase used by critics.
With most of the neighborhood's kids able to transfer to Manzano anyway, APS school board member Leonard DeLayo didn't understand why the issue was eating up so much meeting time. "This blows my mind as to why we're spending two hours on this subject," he said at the Nov. 15 meeting.
Board member Miguel Acosta said the issue touched on more than school districts. "Even if we approve [the boundary change], people will be sending their kids to whatever schools they're sending them to right now. This is a lot more complicated than moving a boundary."
Acosta and DeLayo make up the "2" in the 5-2 vote in favor of the boundary decision, making Four Hills residents part of Manzano's district next year. But what difference does the ruling make, given that only nine of 71 high-school aged students in Four Hills attend Highland, according to APS' administrative proposal presented at the meeting?
Highland Principal Nikki Dennis, who lives in the Highland district and has a daughter who is a freshman at the school, said the school board ruling tied her stomach in knots. "It promotes the image that Highland's a bad place to send your kids," she said. Not only that, she charged, Highland was not given a seat at the bargaining table as the boundary change was being discussed these past months. "I think it promotes an image that certain communities have more impact and influence on the board than others." There was a winner, and there was a loser, she added. Highland lost.
It wasn't about race, Four Hills parents and neighbors said. It's about attending the school you live near, and Manzano's closer. The busses to Highland from their neighborhood are empty, and that's a waste of taxpayer money.
"Manzano and Highland should have had participation in this boundary committee if it was going to be a fair and equal process," Dennis countered. In her mind, ethnicity and socio-economics factored into the move.
Julia Fahl, student and member of the Friends of Highland group, spoke at the meeting and said she understood Four Hills' desire to have a cohesive community. Still, "They could have gotten together and made a community at Highland, but they choose not to."
In a phone interview last Monday, Fahl said the Friends of Highland accepts the board’s decision and won’t fight it. “We’re not trying to hold Four Hills hostage,” she said. The group is planning to distribute fliers to neighborhoods that are close to Highland but not within its district. The fliers will tout the school’s successes. The effort is not about beefing up numbers at Highland, but, Fahl said, it should help “establish a sense of community togetherness.”
Jim Grout is president of the Four Hills Village Homeowners' Association, representing about 700 households, he estimated. "We're hoping with this boundary, within five years, we'll have a neighborhood that's going to all the same schools and children who will know each other."
Whether the boundary change is functional or purely symbolic because students are allowed to enroll in either school regardless, it certainly drew a lot of attention, with members of the state legislature attending, along with city councilors Don Harris and Brad Winter and a representative for Martin Heinrich.
"This is a tremendous statement this board is making that will have far reaching consequences, and it's wrong," said state Sen. Shannon Robinson. Javier Benavidez, an assistant to Council President Heinrich, said the conversation should lead to a re-evaluation of how district boundaries are created.
Acosta depicted the situation differently and spoke his mind as the final vote tally was being taken after a heated school board debate. "This is an issue of a community saying they don't want to be part of that community. We're helping them do that, and I don't think it's right."
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