The DeKalb County School System slammed the brakes Nov. 6 on recently announced plans to close schools and redraw attendance zones districtwide, saying they plan to consult the public over the next year before making decisions, officials said.
A new plan will create a “citizens planning task force” of members chosen by the school board and Superintendent Crawford Lewis, said Daniel Drake, the district’s recently hired planning and forecasting director. The 20-member committee will meet for 10 months and settle on one recommended plan to present to the public at meetings to be held in August and September.
“We’re trying to get the buy-in on the problem before we get to the solutions,” Drake said in a meeting with media.
The plan would place a recommendation before the school board in December 2010, effective August 2011.
District officials announced in October they planned to close an undetermined number of schools and redraw attendance zones to help eliminate nearly 16,000 empty seats the district anticipates over the next seven years. Officials still say those changes are necessary but require more public input than was in the last plan, which included three public meetings next month and a board decision by January. The district had also not planned on creating a special committee of community members to address the issue.
But the district decided quickly on a new plan at Drake’s suggestion, Associate Superintendent Robert Moseley said. Drake, who said he has worked primarily with transportation-related planning, was hired last month. He said he plans to re-evaluate the district’s school capacity numbers, its enrollment projections up to 2020 and demographic data the district currently uses from a recent study.
“It’s now dated, and we need to refresh those numbers,” Moseley said.
The enrollment imbalance is widespread in elementary, middle and high schools. Projected enrollments for next school year show schools across southern, central and southwestern DeKalb County with low enrollments, and the situation is projected to worsen by 2016-17, the last year of the school district’s capital improvements plan, which Lewis began in 2006.
The district projects nearly 13,000 seats will be empty next school year and an additional 3,000 by 2016. Stephenson High School, for instance, can hold 2,237 students, according to district data. It’s projected to have 476 open seats next year, but that number is expected to increase to 787 by 2016.McNair High School has a capacity of 1,663 seats, data shows. The school is expected to have 692 empty seats next year and 635 in 2016. Nearby McNair Middle School also has similar enrollment issues. The school, which has a 1,427-student capacity, is projected to have 535 empty seats next year and 584 in 2016. Reasons for the districtwide imbalance are varied. Shifts in the housing market have pushed people outside central DeKalb, Moseley said, but it’s not entirely clear why. More students have enrolled in private, charter and home school programs, the school board presentation indicated. The district is also analyzing how serious No Child Left Behind’s school of choice policies contributed to the imbalance, Moseley said. The federal legislation allows parents to transfer their children out of an under-performing school to a better-performing one if they choose. Regardless, they know school of choice isn’t the largest issue, he said.
“Every community will be affected by [restructuring],” Moseley said.