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.)