Last night Dr. Richardson and Dr. Wilson, the assistant demographer, conducted the third of five meetings at Johnson High School to discuss the closing of up to nine schools in Huntsville City. The number of community members in attendance was slightly larger than those seen at Huntsville High and Grissom High last week, but the auditorium was still not full.
In addition to empty seats from parents, Dr. Moore, Mr. Blair and Ms. Morrison were also not in attendance.
The meeting began again with an abbreviated demographer’s report presentation by Dr. Wilson and then proceeded to questions from the floor. Despite a marked increase in non-responsive answers from Richardson and Wilson, the concerned citizens present seemed to go out of their way to be polite to the panel.
Here is a summary of the questions that were asked. Please note that these are simply my incomplete notes from the meeting. If others have a clearer memory of questions that I did not record, please share them in the comments section below. Also, I do live-tweet these meetings, so if you wish to see my initial reaction to the questions and answers, please follow russwinn on twitter.
- Q: What were the specific guidelines given to the demographer concerning the approach he should take in conducting his study?
- A: Wilson stated, “As I am not the demographer, I cannot answer that question.” Richardson added that the demographer was hired before he was, so he too is unable to answer this question. He went on to claim that he “believed the board would have further opportunities for public input after this process were completed.”
- Additionally, Richardson is planning to recommend on Thursday that the board extend the contract to Dr. Salmon and Dr. Wilson so that they may continue to collect data to share with the board. This statement was greeted with groans from the crowd.
As they seemed unwilling to even attempt to answer this question, I recommend that we ask it again at future meetings.
- Q: What is your current plan for addressing the changes in transportation these recommendations will bring?
- A: Wilson stated, “We currently do not have a plan to address these changes. The decisions concerning the closings will have to be made first.”
As with a specific details concerning the financial basis for closing schools, zoning questions, feeder schools and transportation concerns will not be addressed until after the board makes it’s decision. This is their stock answer to these types of questions.
- Q: As the decline in enrollment at West Mastin Lake and the overcrowding at Providence are both directly related to previous attendance zoning decisions made by the board, why aren’t you simply recommending re-zoning these two schools rather than the closing of West Mastin Lake?
- A: Wilson, “I’m not sure I follow you.” After the question was explained, Wilson responded that changes to the attendance zones are the primary way of addressing overcrowding, but those decisions will not be made until after the board has arrived at it’s decision.
Again, the community has offered a clear recommendation to avoid closing a school. The stock response from Dr. Wilson and Dr. Richardson is that while they agree that re-zoning is a clear solution to the problem, those decisions will have to wait until after the schools are closed.
- Q: What are the reasons that Huntsville City Schools are in a financial mess?
- A: Dr. Richardson offered a three part answer. First he stated that the proration the state has experienced in the past three years is worse than he’s ever seen. (Of course, every other system in the state also faced proration.) Second, Personnel and Transportation costs are too high which has resulted in significant cuts to both. Third, he stated, “And we’ve discovered that there is a problem in the coding of special education students that the state is allowing us to correct. This coding error has resulted in an overestimate of approximately $3 million dollars. So, the deficit that we thought was $18.5 million is actually only $15.5 million.”
Please see my comments on this statement on yesterday’s post, “Lost Faith: We Don’t Even Know How Much We Owe.”
- Q: What factors other than demographics will be considered before the closing decision is made?
- A: Dr. Wilson claims that the demographer’s report “is key” to the decision, but budget is also important.
In case you didn’t catch it, Dr. Wilson’s “answer” was that there are no other factors that will be considered before the board makes it’s decision.
- Q: As The Academy for Science and Foreign Language is currently located in the Davis Hills building, how will ASFL be affected by the closing of Davis Hills Middle School
- A: Dr. Wilson claimed to be aware that this was the case and stated that ASFL would neither be closed nor moved.
In case you are unaware, ASFL and Davis Hills are indeed connected.
He offered no explanation how closing half a school would be accomplished or would actually save money.
- Q: Where are the central office cuts?
- A: Dr. Richardson claimed that certainly central office cuts are the first place you look for cuts as they create the least disruption upon the students. He followed by saying, “We’ve made some minor cuts so far, but I suspect that further cuts will come in the future.”
So cuts to the central office, despite being the first place one looks for cuts, will also have to wait until after schools are closed.
- Q: Why are you closing inner city schools when you’re building new schools in new developments?
- A: Wilson stated that there was “no consideration given in the demographer’s report to developers.” Richardson followed up by stating that you build where the students are.
Does anyone else see those two responses as contradictory?
- Q: I‘ve examined your demographer’s report closely and there are many errors contained in it. Simply put, “the data is flawed.” As such, I suspect that many of the recommendations made here were “predetermined” by the board before the report was made to the board.
- A: Dr. Wilson stated, “Our data is very accurate. It is the interpretation the questioner has placed upon the data that is flawed.” Dr. Richardson went on to claim that the board was not influential in predetermining the report offered by the demographer. The recommendations for closings are based on the data. He further added that they will be adding addition census data to the report once that data is released.
Dr. Richardson claimed in an earlier response that he could not answer what direction the board offered to the demographer as he was not here when the demographer was hired. Yet, here he claims that the board did not influence the demographer in any way. I wonder which answer is the correct one?
- Q: What will be done with the abandoned buildings?
- A: Dr. Richardson claims they will certainly attempt to sell many of the existing buildings, but as some of them are in residential areas that would likely prove difficult. Therefore he has requested a report from the director of facility maintenance on the feasibility of demolishing some of those schools to either allow for the creation of “green space” in a neighborhood or for sale to developers for new developments. This report will be shared soon.
This was brand new information and a different response from the one he offered last week. Last week he claimed that he had already looked into demolishing buildings and had found the costs associated with that to be prohibitive.
- Q: Butler has been in decline since the building and re-zoning for Columbia. There seems to be no interest in the school on the part of the board. Additionally, there is low student and less parent participation in the school.
- A: As this was phrased as a statement, the panel did not respond.
- Q: Is there data tracking the success rates of transfer students after the transfer?
- A: Dr. Richardson said that he would find this data and share it on the website.
- Q: Monte Sano is a success because of parental involvement. How will the closing of schools affect parental involvement? What is the average cost per student there?
- A: Richard stated that that data was on the web, but that the cost per student at Monte Sano was high. (It’s closer to the median which is $9,727) He agreed that parental involvement is crucial to success and stated that the small size of the school was driving the closing recommendation.
Dr. Richardson did not offer a response to the impact that closing neighborhood schools might have upon parental involvement. This is another significant affect of the closings that they have not considered.
- Q: Where are the new attendance zones so that we can compare the changes to the current ones.
- A: Dr. Wilson again claimed that, there are too many options in the report to offer attendance zone recommendations before the board makes it’s decision. Furthermore, he claimed that “It would not be helpful to offer demographics and attendance zone lines at the same time.”
Again, this is their stock response to questions that they don’t want to answer.
Now, for perhaps the second most enjoyable exchange of the evening:
- Q: What are the exact cost savings of the previous closings that have occurred in Huntsville. Why aren’t those numbers being used as a model for our current closing discussions rather than state averages?
- A: Dr. Richardson stated that “no one has asked this question before, so we’ll have to get that information to you later.” He then refused to offer specific data, but claimed that he would “look it up and post it on the web.”
Honestly, his response was that no one had asked for that data before. It’s a good thing we’re recording these meetings for him. I suppose he missed the five or so questions concerning that at Grissom, the multiple questions at Huntsville High, and even Dr. Richardson’s question concerning specific numbers at the board meeting on June 2nd. WOW.
Appropriately, the final question of the evening was much the same.
- Q: Can you tell us how much we’ve saved by closing schools in the past?
- A: Dr. Richardson responded, “I’ll get that for you.”
The meeting adjourned promptly at 8:30pm despite many people still wishing for the opportunity to speak.