Lost Faith: HCS Schools Closing First Meeting

Tuesday night at the first public meeting to discuss Dr. Salmon’s demographic recommendations for the closing of nine schools in Huntsville in 2012-2013 school year, approximately 250 people came out to discuss the closings and the implications for our students, our schools, and our community. Unfortunately, Dr. Richardson seemed to only want to discuss generalities and platitudes. “Tough?” I think not. While Dr. Salmon did not attend the meeting, he sent his assistant, Dr. James Wilson re-present the recommendations in an abbreviated form, to assist Dr. Ed Richardson, and occasionally Dr. Ann Roy Moore, in answering questions from the community.

In case you were wondering, Dr. Richardson answered or contributed to the answering of approximately 90% of the questions asked. Dr. Moore, often looking bored, responded to only a few. The board members sat quietly in the back of the auditorium and responded to questions only after the meeting was adjourned.

Bored Moore
Drs. Wilson, Moore, and Richardson

In short, Dr. Richardson, who’s assignment with the board will end in June (at which time he will return to his home where his family is not affected by school closings), is the person calling the shots.

Lost Faith

After Dr. Wilson offered a quick review of the Demographer’s Report, in which he laid responsibility for the necessity of school closings at the feet of Dr. Craig Pouncey, deputy state superintendent, he again pointed out that Huntsville has experienced a growth rate of 13.5% from 2000 – 2009. Unlike the rest of the state, we have seen our labor force grow by 8.2% over that same period. Even our “live births” (numbers of students born in Huntsville) have increased by nearly 10% over that period, and yet, for some unexplainable reason (at least to Dr. Wilson, and presumably to Dr. Richardson), Huntsville City Schools enrollment has remained flat.

Let me see if I might can offer some insight: Parents of children in Huntsville have lost faith in the leadership of the school system. For that reason, private school enrollment and home schooling has ballooned in the city over the past ten years. Perhaps we’ve grown weary of being told, as Dr. Wilson did several times, that “this is just a recommendation,” and “there are a lot of options in this recommendation.” Please sir, save the spin for people who aren’t actually paying attention.

There aren’t that many options. Here’s the list:

  1. Close Butler High (No Option)
  2. Move New Century (No Option)
  3. Close Davis Hills (No Option)
  4. Maybe also close Ed White and Westlawn (One Option)
  5. Either close Whitesburg Middle and Elementary or Mt. Gap Middle and Elementary (One Option)
  6. Close Monte Sano (No Option)
  7. Close West Mastin Lake (No Option)
  8. Close Montview (No Option)

Out of the recommendations they’ve offered, there are exactly two “options.” When you exaggerate or claim that we just can’t have specific data to support your claims, we’re not going to believe you. When you segregate our kids without our approval or input, we’re not going to believe you. And if parents of students don’t trust the leadership of the school system, we would be foolish to send our kids to your schools.

Our Huntsville City Schools children’s young futures are taking flight: right out of our system.

Take Flight

Q&A

The meeting was then opened for question and statements by the public. These could either be submitted in writing or could be asked directly. The Huntsville PTA was in charge of deciding the order in which the questions we asked. One recommendation for those planning to attend the future meetings, sign up to speak rather than simply submitting your questions in writing. The written questions often received quick dismissive answers.

Here are some of the questions and answers offered at last night’s meeting.

Q: What are the specific cost savings anticipated by the cuts?

A: Dr. Richardson shared with the crowd the same figures he shared Thursday night that he received from the Alabama State Board of Education averages: An elementary school costs $300,000 per year, a middle school is $500,000 and a high school is $700,000. There has been no study done, and there is no study planned to develop specific figures until after the school board decides which schools to close. Dr. Richardson stated to the board’s similar question on April 2nd that offering that data now would “just confuse it [the decision] at this point.” You can watch Dr. Richardson’s response to Dr. Robinson for yourself at about the 46 minute mark of the video posted on the HCS website.

Q: Since previous school closings have not generated anticipated savings, how can we be sure that these closings will?

A: Dr. Richardson shared the same general figures again, but this time added that, “selling a school will make up much of the deficit,” and “the elimination of a principal will save considerable funds.”

Q: What is the anticipated impact on traffic patterns and busing requirements of the closings.

A: Dr. Richardson responded that they have not yet studied that issue, but that it would need to be studied before the plan is submitted to the Department of Justice for their approval. He added that it currently costs $50,000 to own and operate a bus for a year. We current run routes with buses that are half full, and we could “easily double the number of students we transport.” New School Zoning lines would not be developed until after the Board had arrived at their decision, but before the plan was submitted to the DoJ for approval.

Q: What is the timeline for the decision?

A: Dr. Richardson responded that the public comment meetings on the demographer’s report will continue for the next two weeks. The board will make their decision towards the end of the summer and the plan will be submitted to the DoJ around the beginning of October 2011. The Board of Education will make the decision.

Q: How did the demographer’s report move from the data contain in the report towards recommendations at the end of the report particularly when the report shows that Monte Sano is operating and is projected to operate above capacity for the next ten years?

A: Dr. Wilson’s response was to basically avoid the question. He did state, after being asked the question numerous times, that he would look into providing that information at some point in the future. He did offer the follow statistics on Monte Sano’s enrollment which supported the questioner’s claim of operating above capacity.

  • Monte Sano Capacity: 176
  • 2005: 229
  • 2010: 237
  • 2015: 222
  • 2020: 226

Q: What would be the impact on transportation and the future placement of the Butler students?

A: Dr. Moore responded for the first time that it has yet to be decided where Butler high school students would be placed. The rumor (and we know how reliable rumors are with Dr. Moore-they usually turn out to be true) is that they will be placed at Lee and Johnson, but this is just a “rumor.”

Q: What impact will this recommendation have on special needs students, will they be moved again, and were special needs students taken into consideration in this plan?

A: Dr. Wilson responded that “they were taken into consideration,” and he cited as evidence “a slide near the end before the recommendations.” Having reviewed those slides, I have found only one reference to a slide with data entitled, “Non-Attendance Zone Schools and Special Programs.” There appears to be no discussion of the impact on special needs students who currently attend a school recommended for closing. (By the way, this was a written question. It is far more beneficial to ask the questions directly from the microphone.)

Q: When will you look at specific costs and benefits for closing a school? When will specific data be shared with the public?

A: Dr. Richardson responded again, that “this is a first shot,” but that the data will not be considered until after the Board had arrived at a decision.

Q: Why haven’t other cuts been considered before the closing of a school? Specifically, where are the cuts to the central office staff?

A: Dr. Moore claims that the central office staff (not just people who have an office in the central office) represents 3% of the staffing for Huntsville City Schools. When this number was challenged, Dr. Richardson stated that these numbers were “public information” and should be shared. As these have been numbers that numerous parents have repeatedly asked for only to be denied, I’m not holding my breath on this one; I’ve asked the same question before myself.

Q: When will the building conditions study be released to the public?

A: Dr. Richardson seemed to have difficulty understanding what this (written) question was intending to ask. The public expounded for him. Has there been a study on the current condition and maintenance requirements of the buildings in the system, and if so when will it be released to the public? After stating that that information was public information, he claimed that “nobody’s asked for that information before.” Perhaps he wasn’t listening Thursday night when Dr. Robinson asked him for that specific information. Again, the central office follows the pattern of claiming they’re open and transparent, while refusing to publish information that has been requested. (Again, this is the same central office that Special Needs Parents have been dealing with for months over a single report.

Conclusions

A few final suggestions for people planning to attend the next meeting at Grissom High on Thursday, June 9, 2011 at 6:30pm.

  1. Signup to ask your question at the microphone. You’ll get a much more detailed answer from the panel.
  2. Bring a crowd of your supporters, but be polite to other groups. The Save Monte Sano group had nearly everyone of their questions answered while many others were left waiting.
  3. Take notes and bring specific details. This receives a much better response.
  4. Stand up for your children.

And one final word to Dr. Richardson. You claimed, at least twice, Tuesday night that parents, “always support high standards until their kid brings home a D.” Respectfully sir, good parents support high standards even when their child doesn’t reach them. You are not winning public trust by insulting us. Please stop.

 

 

 
Russell
"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.