By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — This city’s schools will throw out the welcome mat for another year as the School Committee voted to remain a choice community, open to youngsters from other cities and towns.
But members raised serious questions about which schools the new students would attend — and the debate resulted in a decision to investigate the possibility of redistricting the entire system, a step that could send some Peabody kids to different Peabody schools.
At issue is whether the choice students, currently numbering 34, are being in put in schools or classrooms already underpopulated. It isn’t happening now, complained member Ed Charest, despite the fact that the board urged precisely that policy last year.
“Until that can be set in stone,” Charest said, “you’re not getting my vote. ... Not one of these students is in a low enrollment school.”
Member Jarrod Hochman lamented that the choice students could be put in schools already “bulging” with students, including the Carroll and Center schools.
“Make sure they go into schools that have lower enrollment,” urged committee member Tom Rossignol.
Superintendent Joe Mastrocola pointed out that the 34 students bring the city cash, $5,500 per youngster. What’s more, that money is important in offsetting the 70 kids from Peabody who now take advantage of choice programs in other communities, bringing city funds with them. “The funds that came in gave us an enormous boost.”
The number of students in the choice program has increased dramatically, said Mastrocola. “We’ve gone from four students a year back to 34.” More students are expected to apply for the fall term.
Further, he explained, four of the 34 now attending are at the Higgins Middle School with 11 at the high school. A significant percentage of the choice students were originally enrolled in Peabody schools and opted to remain here while their families moved away, he added.
Low class size, Mastrocola told the members, continues to be “one of the jewels of our system.”
For his part, Hochman raised the possibility that the distribution of choice students is masking an imbalance in how children are distributed among the city’s elementary schools. By continuing choice, he said, “We’re never going to get redistricting.”
“I do agree,” said Rossignol, “redistricting is something we need to look at.”
Member Dave McGeney cautioned that redistricting is a difficult, time-consuming and ultimately expensive process. “It takes many, many man-hours.” Further, he noted, “The community is expecting and demanding we look at new revenue streams.”
Nevertheless, a motion to study redistricting passed unanimously. With that, Hochman agreed to support the choice plan and it also passed 5-1, with only Charest voting no.