RPS school rezoning, “a labor of love”

Posted at 12:06 AM, Mar 28, 2012

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) A team of citizen volunteers has been patiently navigating one of the toughest and most emotional challenges facing Richmond: rezoning the city schools.

They’ve been at it for six months, with about three months more to go.

“It is all volunteer,” said Shonda Harris Muhammed, chair of the rezoning committee. “It is a labor of love.”

She and the team were at John Marshall High School Tuesday night, explaining halls full of colored maps to parents and teachers, showing the details of the four different plans they’ve developed.

“There’s a ton of challenges,” said volunteer Hunter Thompson, who has a child in RPS. “This is a multi-variable equation. There are any number of things we could be considering, and the more you consider, the more complex the equation gets, and the more difficult it becomes to get an easy answer.

This was the second public hearing to showcase four separate plans. They’ll  have to pick the best two very soon, and they wanted everyone who came to John Marshall to understand the plans – and to help them decide.

They’ve been pouring over maps, touring the city. Searching for that magic combination to balance attendance throughout all the city schools; to not break up neighborhoods or housing complexes; to allow most children to walk safely to school; to keep underused schools like Fisher and Cary open.

And to engage the outside consultants who are actually drawing the maps.

“It was a major project,” said volunteer Powell, “and  I just felt it was important to step up and offer what I can.”

There is plenty of passion swirling around this issue. The rezoning will determine what schools students will attend in the future. The city is building four replacement schools in the next three years. Some schools are overcrowded. Some are operating at barely 30 percent of their capacity. One or two may close.

The committee started with about 48 members. Roughly 20 have fallen by the wayside. It’s a lot of work. And there’s that pressure surrounding the passion.

“We’ve all joined up for one reason or another,” said volunteer Pam Embrey. “Everyone has their own agenda.” It’s tough to set aside your child’s interests and focus on what’s best for everyone, she added. “Some people, I think, have dropped off because they’ve become maybe too emotional or maybe irritated by the process.”

And there’s a lot of process. The volunteers patiently explained the complexities of the maps showing the four different rezoning plans.

At about the time school lets out, the volunteers will have had to cut the  plans in half, presenting the school board with two options. The board could accept one, or come up with something different.

There will be two more public hearing on the plans before the board decides.

The remaining volunteers are committed to explaining the complexities of the rezoning to as many citizens as possible. As Embrey said, “I think with a little guidance, it become pretty clear.”