My friend Russell posted a great article detailing the costs associated with closure of a school. In the article, he establishes that there is a significant impact to property values in areas served by public schools. Many are left wondering, when there is such a downside to shuttering school buildings, why Huntsville City Schools would be closing schools. The simple answer is the $40MM shortfall in the HCS budget but a deeper dive reveals that uncontrolled spending on new schools is the culprit.
Despite statistics readily available indicating that school enrollment has been flat for at least 15 years, the HCS system became intoxicated on the thought of new school buildings.
In the above you can see that student enrollment has been stagnant, at around 23,000 students give or take a thousand. During that same time, and despite the fact that enrollment numbers actually trended downward, the HCS system went on a building spree, adding capacity for over 5300 more students, putting us nearly 10,000 students over the needed capacity. Starting in the late 90’s with Hampton Cove, it appeared that any new housing development warranted its own shiny new school.
Even if one were to discount the construction costs of all the new schools (totaling over $114MM) which might be funded with specially allocated money, by using Dr. Richardson’s own numbers the yearly costs of these new schools is $3.4MM. Warning signs of uncontrolled spending have existed for years, yet our administration and board have done nothing until it was nearly too late.
When looking at the proposed school closures in light of the school building spree of the past 10 years, one can’t help but see that the burden of the uncontrolled spending is being borne on the shoulders of the established communities in Huntsville. Looking at a map of the HCS system you can see this distinction:
Whereas school construction has boomed around the newest subdivisions on the outskirts of Huntsville (the two green flags in the heart of the city represent existing schools that have been rebuilt: Lee and Blossomwood), all of the schools slated for closure exist around the established communities. It’s understandable if people in these established communities feel as though they’re getting the short end of the stick. After all, their property taxes have supported the new schools resulting from urban sprawl, none of which appear on the proposed closure list. Instead, while the outlying subdivision property values have been enhanced by the building of new schools, the property values of the established communities will suffer as schools are closed.
None of this makes sense at all in light of Dr. Richardson’s statement that the present school crisis will be resolved within two years with his proposed plan. Perhaps the blustering about unnecessary schools is an attempt to divert our attention from the real issue causing the underutilization. As pointed out before, the population growth in Huntsville should result in comparable growth in the HCS system. Yet, HCS enrollment is flat while other educational institutions like private schools and home schools see an increase in enrollments. Below is a comparison of two large private schools in Huntsville and the HCS system:
Randolph and Westminster Christian Academy have seen growth over this time of 10% and 2.5% respectively, while HCS shows a growth rate of only 0.8%. Is it possible that parents across Huntsville and those considering a move to Huntsville see the financial mismanagement, the mistreatment of certain classes of children, the inability to remove poor teachers, and the lack of accountability among the leadership as reasons to flee from public education to other alternatives? Even in Huntsville, I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure this one out.