Deciding which DeKalb schools to close: Academic performance will not be a factor

A concerned crowd of north DeKalb parents whose small “underutilized” schools are on a list for possible closings heard two critical pieces of information at a lively session with county officials Thursday night: In deciding which of 23 targeted schools to close, academic performance will not be considered and their schools are unlikely to be closed because they are not that far below capacity.

Described as an emergency meeting of the Tucker cluster, the session drew 260 parents from Midvale Elementary, Brockett Elementary and Smoke Rise Charter. They are among the schools being looked at by the Citizens Planning Task Force for possible closure due to Dekalb’s $88 million budget deficit.

The parents were disappointed in the lack of consideration of academics since their schools are doing well, but were delighted with the prediction from DeKalb schools planner and forecaster Daniel Drake that there are other schools on the list with far more worse enrollment to capacity ratios that are more likely to be closed.

Drake also told parents that the decision to not weigh academic performance in deciding school closings came from “the powers that be” and those “above my pay grade.”

Of course, being DeKalb, parents weren’t completely reassured by anything Drake said because as several people noted, weird things happen in DeKalb. (Little did any of us know that a few miles away from our meeting in Livsey Elementary  the DeKalb school board was discussing the  temporary stepping down of Superintendent Crawford Lewis now that he has become enmeshed in the DA’s school construction probe. So, yes, weird things can and do happen.)

Drake clarified initial news reports that only schools with 300 or fewer students would be closed since the cluster schools in Tucker have enrollments in the 400-plus range, The issue was not a set number of students, but whether the school had far fewer students than its capacity allowed. He also said the four schools were a general target, but that it could end up being two to six schools that are closed.

The possible closings put the cluster schools in an awkward position, pitting each against the others in a quest for survival. While the schools are all part of the same feeder system and many of the families know each other from swim teams and church, it was clear the parents at each school were intent on saving their school. One of the most ardent groups was Midvale, which showed wearing the school’s color, green, and had the only sign in the front of the room: “Money can’t buy education: We love our school.”

Of course, money can buy education, and it’s a dearth of funding that has led DeKalb to the desperate point of closing schools. The citizen task force meets March 9 and April 13 to discuss which of the schools should close. The school board gets the recommendation on April 14, holds two public hearings on May 6 and May 11 and then casts its final vote on May 14 .

At that point, a week before school concludes for the year, several DeKalb communities will be upturned as parents learn their neighborhood school is closing and their children are going to a new school next year. There will likely be a run on transfers if kids are reassigned to lower-performing schools.

The parents were told that the school board does want to hear from them about their schools and why they should remain open. That led to some audience rumblings that Smoke Rise Charter received earlier notice that it was on the list of possible closures because it had a local ally on the citizen task force so it was able to already launch a campaign. Parents at Smoke Rise have met and created a PowerPoint on the crisis.

At the meeting Thursday, Smoke Rise shared that PowerPoint, which summarized the facts of the closings and presented strategies to respond. While the other parents appreciated the well-done PowerPoint, there were a few huffs that the school could assemble such an effective Powerpoint because of its earlier notification.

The parents also received advice on how to respond and fight for their respective schools from area assistant superintendent Terry M. Segovis, who counseled them to bombard school board members with short, concise and fact-rich e-mails about why their schools deserve to live on.

Wanting to avoid traffic, I arrived at Livsey pretty early and expected to find an empty parking lot. I did not. I found parents already in their seats, principals and assistant principals on hand and a clear consensus that they were not going to give up their schools without a fight.

Good for them. A school is far more than a building that educates students. In many communities, the school becomes a focal point, the connective tissue that brings together families who otherwise would never have met. Yes, kids will survive a transfer to another school. But it is a lie to pretend that a shuttered schoolhouse where hundreds of children and families once found friendships does not take a toll on a neighborhood.

There is the obvious impact on property taxes, as audience members cited in their questions, but there is a psychic toll, too, from losing a neighborhood center, from walking past a silent, empty building where you once attended talent shows and carnivals and science fairs. (The shuttered schools will likely not be sold since DeKalb learned from its experience in Dunwoody that it is a mistake to sell off property when you close a school and then have to buy very expensive land 15 years later for a new school when demographics shift, said Segovis.)

52 comments Add your comment

jim d

February 26th, 2010
9:06 am

Dekalb should consider leasing closed schools to start up charters rather than let them set and deteriorate are pay to maintain them.

jim d

February 26th, 2010
9:06 am

Maureen Downey

February 26th, 2010
9:10 am

jim d, I agree. I am not sure why DeKalb won’t lease its empty Forest Hills site to the Museum School of Avondale. I understand the system was eying that location for a single gender academy, but I doubt that is going to happen any time soon so let the charter use it rather than have to open in trailers/modular classrooms in a church lot.
Maureen

jim d

February 26th, 2010
9:13 am

Mo, according to charter law—the school system must maintain property—i would think that a $1 a year lease with waivers requiring the charter to maintain property and liability ins.would work—but then i’m no attorney

Write Your Board Members

February 26th, 2010
9:13 am

So when the committee goes to close schools in poorer and less empowered neighborhoods, what then?

While I appreciate the passion of these communities, and believe that redistricting could solve their enrollment challenges, it is important to note that no community wants to see its school closed. And simply because the parents don’t have the resources, skills or knowledge shouldn’t make their school more vulnerable than a school that does.

DeKalb must close schools. It is about money, but not just operating funds. DeKalb is no longer eligible for state construction dollars because DCSS has so many empty seats. This is a big problem in a school system with a rapidly aging infrastructure.

It is a shame that school closures are being done in isolation. Redistricting is also desperately needed.

jim d

February 26th, 2010
9:20 am

Write your board–

No the real shame is places like gwinnett–where they continue to build knowing they will never fill the buildings.

Lynn

February 26th, 2010
9:23 am

Commission charter schools are not given the same privileges/rights as it relates to surplus buildings as system approved start ups.

jim d

February 26th, 2010
9:44 am

perhaps the commission should re-convine

Tonya T

February 26th, 2010
9:49 am

Write your board.

I wholeheartedly disagree. A school is a representation of the community that surrounds it, and as such those very factors you mention should be taken into consideration. If the test scores are abysmal and parent participation non-existent in addition to low enrollment–those schools should be at the top of the list to go. Dekalb hasn’t met AYP as a district in a while, and closing down schools that perform well and have demonstrable community support would be foolish.

Many times poor people are less empowered because they CHOOSE to be. They have access to the same libraries, board meetings, political representatives, and the like that everyone else does. For a great majority, they are just not interested in taking advantage of it. Stop making excuses and start making changes. I worked in APS in the front line with many of the very parents you describe I assure you they just.don’t.care.

Lynn

February 26th, 2010
9:49 am

It isn’t the commission, it is the law related to surplus properties.

Allen

February 26th, 2010
9:50 am

Lynn–
What “privileges/rights” are you talking about? The well-established, system-approved charter International Community School (ICS) wanted to use Forest Hills when it closed 3 years ago, the community was very supportive of the idea, and the Board either (depending on who you speak to, as no decision was made public, natch) turned it down or wanted so ridiculously high a rent as to make it impossible.

jim d

February 26th, 2010
9:55 am

then perhaps the legislature should be approached—either way i see this policy as a toatl waste of taxpayer assets

NA

February 26th, 2010
10:11 am

Where can we find the list of possible closures?

Ann

February 26th, 2010
10:11 am

The county should redraw its lines first and then decide which schools to close.

Tony

February 26th, 2010
10:18 am

Taxpayers want school systems to provide front-door bus pick-up service for delivery to our neighborhood school and they want all this without the requirement to pay taxes to make it happen. I simply cannot figure this one out. Y’all help me understand how schools are supposed to be able to provide unlimited services without the funding to pay for it.

Ann

February 26th, 2010
10:25 am

jim d

February 26th, 2010
10:28 am

Tony,

“Y’all help me understand how schools are supposed to be able to provide unlimited services without the funding to pay for it.”

PFM works. (pure–magic)

James

February 26th, 2010
10:37 am

Tony,

“Y’all help me understand how schools are supposed to be able to provide unlimited services without the funding to pay for it.”

That rather describes a lot of problems. Schools, Education, Health Care, Car Insurance, home mortgages, etc. We want stuff for free or close to free.

Ernest

February 26th, 2010
10:37 am

Maureen, I have a comment that was caught in the filter for the earlier blog. Could you place it in this blog as it may be more appropriate here.

Ernest

February 26th, 2010
10:40 am

JimD, one recommendation for closed schools is to lease them to the county for greenspace. Some communities in DeKalb don’t have much thus this could be a good PR move. If there is a need again for a school in that location, the county would provide it back to the school system.

At the end of the day, this is tax payer dollars. Wouldn’t it make sense for both entities to collaborate on behalf of the citizens?

Ethics

February 26th, 2010
10:40 am

Tucker, learn a lesson from Nancy Creek. Tax payers, learn a lesson from closing of Nancy Creek. It was all a sad sham, and had nothing to do with academic performance or the fact that Nancy Creek was a jewel in DeKalb. Dr. Lewis does not care about our children; he cares about lying about ciphoning gas out of his car. It’s pathetic that this farce is still going on.

You can fool some people all of the time and all people some of the time, but not all people all of the time.

jim d

February 26th, 2010
10:45 am

Ernest–Raise trees or raise smarter better educated kids—you decide

Ernest

February 26th, 2010
10:49 am

JimD, I think you and I are cut from the same cloth in this area. I’m responsible for raising better educated kids, not the school system. I do look for them to help but ultimately it is my responsibility. Time will tell if we did a good job….

say what?

February 26th, 2010
11:15 am

Make the empty buildings community service building, rent them out. Start looking at developing a marketing plan for businesses to buy the buildings and all that they could with them.

Buildings need to be closed because there are not enough children to fill all of the space.

DeKalb Conservative

February 26th, 2010
11:16 am

What are the unintended concequences of this? Good and bad?

While I want to point the finger at DeKalb on this one, I can’t (yet) as they are trying to reduce spending. Anyone with more inside knowledge on other things that can be cut first? I’d like to think closing a good performing school is a potential emotional play for something else…

jim d

February 26th, 2010
11:18 am

Say What?

They could fill them as commissioned charters—lessening the load at surrounding schools

Ernest

February 26th, 2010
11:35 am

DeKalb Conservative, DeKalb County Schools has more facilities than any other school district in the state. This is only part of the complex puzzle to attempting to reduce costs. There will be both maintenance & operations along with labor savings by doing this.

Since overall labor costs are said to be 91% of the budget, obviously reducing this must be considered. It must be done in a strategic manner, with impact to classroom learning being a factor.

I would love my children to be in a school with less that 400 children and less that 15 students to a class. I don’t think that citizens with 900 children at their school with 25 or more students in a class will want to pay for me to have situation. Add in those that do not have children in a school and that is where the discussions begin.

Allen

February 26th, 2010
11:36 am

Sorry if this appears twice, it seems the first version got eaten by the filter.

Lynn– What “privileges/rights” are you referring to system approved charters having? The system approved, well-established charter International Community School (ICS) attempted to lease Forest Hills in 2007 when it closed (BTW, Maureen you seem to have missed that, given your comment). The community was very supportive of the idea, but the Board either (depending on who you speak to, of course no public announcement was made) just didn’t want to lease it to ICS or wanted rent so high as to make it not possible. So Forest Hills sits empty.

Vladyvladivostok

February 26th, 2010
11:56 am

I live about a 1/8 mile from Forrest Hills elementary and it is starting to decay and bring troglodites to our neighborhood. Some low life sprayed graffiti and turfed the lawn behind the school. Muesuem School officials say that Dekalb scoffed at them about leasing the property.

How about sell it to a developer and make lofts???

Cordelia

February 26th, 2010
12:00 pm

Maybe if the board and district stopped overpaying administrators, engaging in criminal behavior and encouraging corruption-we’d have the $$$ to educate our kids.

Better Education Please

February 26th, 2010
12:14 pm

Doesn’t it seem obvious that the best move would be to improve the educational system in DeKalb county?? That way people would move here and have the confidence to put their kids in the schools and the people that already live here could save a few bucks by taking their kids out of pricey private schools and put them in this system. That is how you take care of your enrollment problem, addkids, not give up and close schools.

Kim Frantz

February 26th, 2010
12:20 pm

WRITE YOUR BOARD-
redistricting IS in fact in Phase 2 of the Task Force’s job. School closures is Phase 1. So, we’ll get 2-6 schools closed THEN we will have resdistrciting done…most likely next year. After this is done then we will even perhaps have to look at closing middle schools and highschools as well. It’s a terrible situation.

Lisa

February 26th, 2010
12:22 pm

Cordelia, I completely agree! The years of excessive spending, administrative shenanigans & corruption in DCSS is the problem. If they had redrawn lines long ago before spending untold millions on building new facilities that weren’t truly needed (but lined certain individuals’ pockets), the deficit probably wouldn’t be so overwhelming. Also, certain administrative personnel get paid more than the US President! Effective long-range planning and the willingness to alter draw-lines would have prevented a lot of this! Granted, no one could have predicted the severity of the economic downtown, but frugal spending as a rule would certainly help in any situation.

Lynn

February 26th, 2010
1:40 pm

ICS has the right to sue DeKalb County for the property. Any locally approved start up charter has the same right in regards to any vacant property.

Dr. Lewis had planned on using Forest Hills for a single gender school, which DCSS can no longer afford.

Lisa2

February 26th, 2010
2:05 pm

Mr. Segovis stated last night that buildings cannot be sold because they feel that they’ll have to turn around and buy new ones when the population surges again in a few years. In addition, they feel they wouldn’t get any value for them in this economy.

I fully agree with Better Education Please… if DeKalb were offering a quality education, we wouldn’t be facing this crisis.

Allen

February 26th, 2010
2:17 pm

Right, Lynn.
ICS, which is dependent on DCSS for its charter, and, like any charter, running on a shoestring budget, is going to spend money it does not have to antagonize the very people who could write it out of existence. Quite a privilege.

jim d

February 26th, 2010
3:42 pm

llllllllllllllllease not SELL

Laura Leckband

February 26th, 2010
3:54 pm

The issue of obtaining closed school facilities is a complex one, governed by both state law and the preference of the county. DeKalb has a right to fear that changing demographics may require them to rebuild the very schools they sold in five or ten years, when the property they need to do it is no longer available, or available at so high a price it cannot be purchased. So when they want “market value” for their property, as Crawford Lewis states in the 2/9 Task Force meeting minutes, what they really want is replacement cost. In the case of Forrest Hills they wanted $15MM as I understand it, for ICS to purchase, and then steered them toward Hooper Alexander, a facility no school in their right mind would want. Also, Forrest Hills, though far better then their current facilities, is not the right long term solution for ICS, as so much of the property is in a flood plane that no reasonable expansion could occur. I believe ICS would be better served to take control of their own destiny, rather than continue to wait years hoping DCSS will change their culture.

ICS could conceivably sue, but as they are dependent upon DCSS for their charter this would hardly be a smart move. Years of negotiotiation, however, have netted nothing. I do not believe ICS will ever be allowed access to one of the empty facilities, and if they were it would be in lease periods so short they could never obtain commitments for the necessary funding. No foundation will fund costs for a charter school to obtain or renovate a facility can be jerked out from under them in 3 or 5 years – foundations want a ten year commitment, which DeKalb is unlikely to make. It is, therefore a Catch-22.

The state commission charter schools such as The Museum School of Avondale Estates, are a different animal. They have no right to “excess” county facilities in any scenario. Only county chartered schools must be considered for occupancy under the law passed this past summer. So The Museum School could only purchase or lease a facility if DCSS allows it out of the goodness of their heart. This is rather unlikely, since DCSS is spending a portion of their limited funds in a lawsuit to prevent the school, and all state charter commission schools, from opening.

The Museum School must work from private funds or funds obtained from foundations for their capital facility costs, and the same limitations apply for as for any leased facility.

The sad fact is that DeKalb parents will continue to take their children out of DeKalb public schools without a sea change in personnel, culture, and results. Boards such as DCSS that operate unethically, without transparency, and without consideration of input and in defiance of checks and balances provided by the community, will fail, as will the school system beneath it. DeKalb is undergoing a permanent change, as parents regain control of their children’s future. There is a reason so many schools are being chartered – parents only have ONE CHANCE to educate their child, and they are no longer willing to bet on a hope that their school system, doing the same thing over and over, will somehow produce a different result.

DeKalb Mom

February 26th, 2010
4:00 pm

I agree with both Tonya T. and Cordelia. Schools with uninvolved parents and poor academic performance are never going to improve. Close underperforming schools and re-route those children to high-achieving schools with active parent participation so that those children from underprivileged neighborhoods can benefit from the high level of support. When I volunteer at my son’s school, I am not just helping him, obviously.

I think the level of graft and corruption in DeKalb schools is the primary problem that needs to be dealt with here. How much have Crawford Lewis, Pat Pope, and all their cronies stolen from DeKalb students.

And by the way, I am sick to death of people complaining about paying taxes to support schools when they don’t have kids.

Good schools benefit the entire community. You don’t want your home broken into? Well, maybe if the kid who broke in had a decent school to go to and teachers who gave a damn, he would have chosen a different path? Want to complain that the store clerk doesn’t speak proper English? Make sure she has a good English teacher at a decent school. Want to ensure your property values don’t deteriorate even further in this crime-riddled county run by corrupt officials? Make sure your neighborhood school remains strong to attract new young families into the community.

Allen

February 26th, 2010
4:32 pm

Thanks Laura.
Basically TMS (or any other commission charter) has no right de jure to DCSS buildings and ICS (or any other system-approved charter) has no right de facto, so it pretty much amounts to the same thing.

Public School Parent

February 26th, 2010
5:28 pm

Folks, I live in DeKalb and have students in the public schools and pay plenty of taxes. We have to close some schools and consolidate others. We have an $88 million shortfall for the coming year and the following year is projected to be just as bad if not worse. Yes, it is painful and disruptive but it has been done in other cities and communities. APS has been closing its underutilized schools.

And yes I am disgusted with the many years of administrative excess. The school system is very top heavy and needs drastic trimming. But the system must cut back on all levels including consolidating schools.

If we have an empty building that the Museum School is willing to pay a fair rental price for, then the system should negotiate a lease.

Ernest

February 26th, 2010
7:05 pm

Good post DeKalb Mom!

Bubba Elgart

February 26th, 2010
7:43 pm

“Hurry Daddy! We can take over! Just like in Clayton! Call Uncle Glenn!”

Allen

February 26th, 2010
8:05 pm

PS Parent–
Not just the Museum School. Most of the charters would like to have a fair shot at a decent lease for DCSS property. Probably not going to happen unless we get a much different BOE.

Write Your Board Members

February 26th, 2010
8:33 pm

My understanding is that the Museum School’s first preference is to be within the City of Avondale Estates. Forest Hills is not, it is however within their school district.

Vince

February 27th, 2010
8:15 am

Bubba….One difference between Clayton and Dekalb. Dekalb’s Board isn’t infiltrated by members of an offbeat union for bad teachers whose mission it is to destroy the school system.

lee lee

February 27th, 2010
3:34 pm

My daughter was a student at Chamblee Middle School some years ago. She and I were shocked to see its condition when we passed by recently. It looks like a prop from the movie “End of the World”, or like it had been in a very smoky fire. It’s all empty and gray and just sitting there totally unused. What a shame. I certainly would’nt want that monstrousity sitting in my neighborhood.

Private School Guy

February 28th, 2010
10:29 pm

One former site they have leased out or sold is the old Northwoods Elementary site now occupied by Yeshiva High School To my knowledge DCSS sold it for a fair price but has the option to by it back if they need the school site.

Time to speak up

March 1st, 2010
1:52 am

DCSS Parents, The time to forward communications to Board members is now. If you have not already done so, please take the time to present your opinions to them, e-mail or call. Budget trimming decisions will be made in April that will impact the system, with C Lewis away, it is going to be an interesting time. He has said that magnets are off the table – If you have an opinion about this, please let it be known. Though I think that these specialty programs are wonderful, we should look closely at the areas of our system that need trimming and frankly, this is one. Magnet settings cost more money, the transportation costs are in the millions. It has always been a controversial topic but parents have tolerated the inequality. It is time to speak up and let the board know that decisions should be made in the best interest of ALL of the students in the county.

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