I learned one main lesson from the long meeting tonight of the Citizens Planning Task Force on school closings in DeKalb: I never want to serve on such a panel.
There is simply no happy ending to this careful process, which depends on reams of data showing enrollments, projected growth, capacities of nearby schools, future housing development around the schools, along with intangibles such as what a school means to a community.
Clearly, from the turnout of 400 parents, the 21 schools that could have been closed mean a lot to their communities. By the end of the long session the list was whittled down to 14 schools, sending the Midvale parents in their green shirts home, relieved to be off the list. But the dozens of sign-carrying Meadowview parents left still anxious that their plucky little school may disappear.
The task force members debated, discussed and deliberated how to determine which schools should close. I was impressed with how much information members sought from district data collectors. I was also impressed with their concern for the impact on students, repeatedly saying that it would be important to divide students from a closed school among only two or three other schools so that friends would not be separated.
In creating the closure list, the county and the panel looked at schools that were below 450 students, which is the magic number for full state funding for an elementary school. Then they looked at buildings to see which might be operating under capacity. Next was a review of whether nearby facilities had the room to take students if the school closed and whether a flood of new students would strain the receiving school.
I was surprised to hear DeKalb schools official Robert Moseley say that renovation projects under way at some of the schools on the list would likely continue even if the schools were shuttered, either because the construction projects were necessary for the preservation of the building — as in a new roof — or because of contractual obligations.
It seems to me that if DeKalb goes ahead and spends millions to fix up buildings that it ends up not using, it should at least consider turning the facilities over to charter schools. (Speaking of charters, Peachtree Hope Charter School was on hand to court parents whose schools may be closed. The charter was approved by the new state Charter School Commission and will open on Memorial Drive in DeKalb in August.)
I arrived very early for the 6 p.m. meeting and talked to a few parents, who seemed reconciled that their schools might close. They understood the financial crisis that the county was facing, although some could not fathom how it took county leaders by surprise. Most were aware that their schools were losing students as their neighborhoods were either seeing fewer families with kids or were suffering waves of foreclosures. Still, they said their communities could rally in a few years when the real estate market recovered and then there could be a rush on local schools.
They were hoping for a miracle that would enable all the schools on the list to stay open, but that seems doubtful with DeKalb’s $88 million deficit.
Here is the list as it stands now. And here is the AJC news story on the meeting.
Updated DeKalb proposed closure list
[Estimated savings if closed and available seats for students]
Atherton: $788,830 savings, 207 seats open
Avondale: $570,650 savings, 244 seats open
Briar Vista: $515,700 savings, 100 seats open
Clifton: $597,830 savings, 170 seats open
Flat Shoals: $671,260 savings, 224 seats open
Gresham Park: $589,670 savings, 178 seats open
Kelley Lake: $471,150 savings, 68 seats open
Knollwood: $594,090 savings, 311 seats open
Laurel Ridge: $469,550 savings, 79 seats open
Meadowview: $536,250 savings, 121 seats open
Medlock: $520,680 savings, 108 seats open
Peachcrest: $565,580 savings, 328 seats open
Rowland: $586,020 savings, 110 seats open
Sky Haven: $680,970 savings, 300 seats open