Should a budget-stressed school system consider the impact on the surrounding community when deciding which schools to close? At the four meetings of the DeKalb citizen task force on school closings that I attended, dozens of parents warned that closing their local school would lower property values, fracture the community and push young families to move elsewhere.
Are any of those legitimate areas of concern for a school system?
Or is the school system’s only focus on how to best educate students within the confines of the resources available? In this time, those resources are limited and strained.
Many people do not understand that small schools that are half empty cost a lot more to operate and that those costs are spread among all the taxpayers in a county. Some communities have made the decision to keep all their schools small, but they pay a dear price for that benefit in much-higher-than-average property taxes.
In DeKalb, most small schools are a product of shifting demographics. The neighborhoods in some areas simply don’t produce enough children to fill all seats so schools are well under capacity, some as much as 50 percent.
The AJC has a good Sunday piece on the losses suffered by the Forrest Hills community in DeKalb when its small elementary school closed. The school was at 250 students at the time that DeKalb closed it.
What the story doesn’t get into is the higher cost associated with keeping open under- capacity schools. Because the state sets 45o as the elementary school enrollment trigger for full staffing funding, a local system has to make up the difference when a school falls below that magic number. That means that very small schools can cost a lot more per student to operate. Figures cited at the DeKalb meetings were $1,500 to $2,000 additional expense per student.
So, while neighborhoods may love their small, under-capacity schools, the rest of the county taxpayers are paying more to keep the schools on life support.
I believe that small schools are better schools in many ways, although academics is not necessarily one of them, according to the research. Well-run small schools are likely to have fewer lost souls roaming the halls because teachers and principals get to know each student by name. The students often live nearby and walk to schools, so the sense of community around the school is strong.
However, small schools are a luxury under our state funding system.
Are they a luxury we can no longer afford, not matter how much a community loves them?