They met for nearly two months, every week, debating school closures. They looked at enrollments, they looked at outside recommendations, they asked questions and listened to hoards of furious parents who dragged along their begging children.
Please don’t close our schools, the children repeatedly said, some clutching signs and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with school names and logos.
Following an April 1 vote, the schools appear safe – for now.
The Citizens’ Planning Task Force, created by Superintendent Crawford Lewis, was asked to recommend four school closures this summer to the board of education next month. The closure effort began with a list of more than 20 schools Lewis had tagged as ripe for closure. That list was quickly pared to two lists of seven. The committee then debated the pros and cons of each before deciding to start from scratch.
As meetings drew larger attendance – during which several parents were forced to wait outside – pressure on the committee mounted, and the committee on April 8 narrowly passed the measure to recommend no school closures, committee members said.
The recommendation will likely change nothing, however.
“We’ve got to close some schools,” committee chair Thad Mayfield said after the meeting. “We want the public to understand that we’re not cutting our nose off to spite our faces. … We’re simply trying to make the system more efficient so children get more dollars for programming and the quality of their education.”
School board members have said since the beginning of the effort that schools need to be closed in the district. Now, with the district’s budget deficit ballooning to roughly $115 million over the last two months, the school board is searching for cuts everywhere it can. The board gave interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson the go-ahead last week to begin the process of laying off several hundred employees – none of them teachers.
The committee, which was only scheduled to complete its first phase of work with this recommendation, could have helped save the district nearly $2.4 million if the board chose to close four recommended schools. The board will likely do the budget cu ting itself. Board member H. Paul Womack threatened as much last month, frustrating some committee members who said they felt the school board was interfering with what was billed as an independent process.
The closure effort is also further complicated because the committee is soon scheduled to begin phase two of its effort, which may include attendance zone re-drawing and additional school closures. (Womack has said the district may need to shutter up to a dozen.) It remains unclear whether the committee’s decision to recommend no closures will lead to the board disbanding it or allowing it to move forward.
Some committee members didn’t want to recommend school closures if attendance zone changes would further complicate the recommendation down the road, Mayfield said.
“The vote was close, and it was complicated by concerns of phase two and therefore not really knowing which of any of the 10 could be recommended,” he said.
The closures will be part of a broad effort to consolidate space, save money and correct heavily lopsided enrollments throughout the district, particularly in areas where some schools have more than 500 empty seats. Otherwise, the district anticipates nearly 16,000 empty seats over the next seven years.
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 dramatically 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.
Reasons for the districtwide imbalance are varied. Shifts in the housing market have pushed people outside central DeKalb. More students have enrolled in private, charter and home school programs. The district is also analyzing how serious No Child Left Behind’s school of choice policies contributed to the imbalance. The federal legislation allows parents to transfer their children out of an under-performing school to a better-performing one if they choose.