Q&A: Huntsville City School Closing Meeting #4 Summary

In a repeating pattern of evasive answers and direct refusal to actually offer the public any specific information on the implications of the School Closing recommendations, Drs. Wilson and Richardson, joined last Thursday by Dr. Moore continued to defend the integrity of a fundamentally flawed demographer’s recommendation at Columbia High School.

(For an excellent review of the specific flaws, please read the ongoing series entitled: “Huntsville City Schools Debacle” parts one through five at http://havealittletalk.wordpress.com . The board could learn a lesson or two about the $70,000 they wasted on the demographer’s report if they took a few minutes to read those articles.)

As a reader pointed out after reading the summary of the third meeting, the responses they offer are repetitive. Richardson is still regularly claiming that specific detail and data “will just confuse it [the decision] at this point.

Richardson has not deviated from that talking point once. Wilson, on the other hand, has become increasingly defensive of the report, stating that, “this is well researched data” even before the questioning has begun. You would think that making $500.00 a day to defend someone else’s incompetence would be enough to make you happy. It seems that Dr. Wilson disagrees.


  • Q: Why are we closing schools?
  • A: Richardson responded with his Stump speech: The school system is $18.5 million in debt, and closing these schools will save approximately $2 million a year.

Please note that the amount of debt has mysteriously jumped back up to $18.5 million despite Richardson telling the crowd in attendance at the Johnson Meeting on Tuesday, June 14th that the debt had actually been overestimated. The actual debt was only $15.5 million. When I asked him about this change after the meeting, he confirmed that the actual debt was less than $18.5 million. Again, we don’t even know how much money we owe, but we are moving ahead with firing teachers and aide, and according to Richardson, we must move ahead with closing schools this year.

  • Q: Since we haven’t saved much in the past with school closings, what specifically can we expect to save by closing these schools?
  • A: Richardson claimed that the report in the Huntsville Times analyzing the savings from previous closings is flawed. For evidence he again cites his state average savings for closing a school. He claimed that, “the savings will occur and the State Department of Education will monitor the situation.” Perhaps, he suggests, the previous closings didn’t result in as much savings as they might have because “there wasn’t a sense of urgency” surrounding the closings.

Can anyone please explain to me how it’s possible for HCS to create a annual budget without already knowing how much it costs to operate a school? This data, which Dr. Richardson claimed he would find and post on the web on June 14th, which he promised Dr. Robinson he would provide on June 2nd, cannot be that hard to come up with.

There is no justification for why this wasn’t included in the demographer’s report to begin with. There is further no justification for not having already provided it as it has been the single most requested piece of information at these meetings.

The only reason it hasn’t been provided yet is because Dr. Richardson either already knows or suspects that it would contradict his claim that closing schools will save $2 million a year.

They have finally provided specific numbers concerning the previous consolidations of Morris/West Huntsville, Westlawn/Stone, University Place/Terry Heights, Blossomwood/East Clinton, MLK/Lincoln on the HCS website. This document was faxed from KyleKoski on June 15, 2011 at 10:09am. Hopefully Richardson will take a moment to actually explain these numbers tonight. Since Richardson had these numbers before the last meeting, I wonder why he decided not to discuss them at the meeting?

  • Q: Where is the actual financial analysis?
  • A: Richardson evaded the question by responding that “in July the board will look at some revised data.” He again stressed that the financial problem is the reason we are having these discussions, but he refuses to provide specific data, and even his numbers continue to change.

To the most commonly asked question, Dr. Richardson, Dr. Wilson, and Dr. Moore have no response.

  • Q: A New Century parent made a statement about the difficulty moving New Century from it’s current location to Lee High School would have upon the ROTC students attempting to complete their work.
  • A: Dr. Richardson sings the praises of ROTC and claims he supports them, but states that as Columbia is “overcrowded” the move needs to happen. He concludes that “there’s never a good time to move a program.”

To this heartfelt response, the crowd erupted in disapproval. Richardson ignored complaints that Columbia was actually built for New Century, by saying, “we’re not here to debate.”

Really, Dr. Richardson, if we’re not here to debate the pros and overwhelming cons of this haphazard recommendation, then exactly why are we here?

  • Q: Where will Butler students be moved?
  • A: Wilson responded that, “we don’t know.” Richardson followed up by saying that the attendance zones will not be developed until after the board has made a decision concerning which schools to close.

The point that Richardson is unwilling or incapable of understanding is that when you’re recommending the closing of 21% of the existing schools in a community, you have to provide specific financial data and attendance zone plans along with the recommendation. There is no other way for the board to make an informed decision.

I hope the board recognizes this point.

  • Q: A Monte Sano parent states that “we don’t trust your numbers, and asks for the following information: What is the demographer’s success rate? What is the academic impact of these closings? How many new staff will be needed at the combined schools once they have a significantly higher student population?
  • A: Wilson responded by saying, “Dr. Salmon is extremely accurate.” He then proceeded to ignore the questions.
  • A: Richardson asked Wilson for the number of reports Dr. Salmon has done. Wilson responded, that he had done over 50, mostly in the south, since 1975. He repeated that Salmon is “very, very accurate” and defended this by saying that it’s the reason he keeps being asked to do them.
  • A: Richardson finishes the response by saying that Monte Sano is an excellent school, but it’s “too small.” He claims that Wilson will compile a list of clients that Salmon and he have worked for.

Once again, there is absolutely no hard data offered and no discussion of the academic impact the closings will have upon our students.

  • Q: Where will the principals of the closed schools be placed?
  • A: Dr. Moore perks up, “there are five or six principal positions open this year.”
  • Q: Is there a way to draw the attendance zones and transfer students plans before schools are closed?
  • A: Dr. Wilson claims this is a good question and that yes, it can be done. Dr. Richardson cuts him off by saying that those plans will not be made until after the decision has been made.
  • Q: With the coming of the new superintendent, why not wait on the decision to close schools?
  • A: Richardson responded that a two to three month time frame is a good time track for the decision. The impact of waiting longer is $2 million per year to keep the schools open. He claims that this decision should be made now and not delayed.
  • Q: What impact will these closing have upon diversity and on the community?
  • A: Richardson claims that the Department of Justice will look at the community as we move toward unitary status. Wilson helpful chimes in with his agreement that “communities are important.”

Please note that later in the night Richardson claims that having state involvement in the closing process would be terrible, but here he’s arguing that the DoJ will themselves do the work that our board and it’s consultants should have done. You can’t demonize state control and lionize federal control when it suits you to pass responsibility.

  • Q: Since New Century was the original motivation for building Columbia High School, why not keep New Century at Columbia and move Columbia students out?
  • A: Dr. Moore claims that Columbia was not built for New Century.

Please contact any New Century teacher or parent for an opposing, and documented, viewpoint. There was much discussion about this after the meeting ended where Dr. Richardson claimed that he was hearing the exact same report from numerous parents and teachers, speaking to him independently, that the Columbia building was indeed built for New Century.

  • Q: Where are the central office cuts?
  • A: Richardson claims that the central office is “strangely classified.” There have been some reductions in the central office, but claims that “they’re actually understaffed. As we needed to make changes fast, it was quicker to cut staff from other areas other than the central office. He then again defended the central office as actually needing more staff. Richardson concluded, “this is a tedious process because of the difficultly in obtaining accurate data.”

If that’s the case, and there’s reason to believe that accurate data is difficult to come by since he’s offered little to none, then shouldn’t his only priority since February have been to get accurate data?

  • Q: Since transfers have been one of the main causes of the problems of causing schools to decline, shouldn’t we simply stop transfer students out of older schools to newer ones?
  • A: Wilson states that this would not solve the problem. Moore argued that all transfers are strictly made by the choice of the parent.

I suppose that Dr. Moore forgot that she had just made the Special Education department under Ms. Sledge force transfers upon at least 28 special needs families. (Not counting the number of students who had already been forced to transfer from other schools previously.)

  • Q: Instead of closing three middle schools, why not combine them by grades?
  • A: There are many issues in combining grade levels.
  • Q: What other criteria, besides demographics, will be considered before closing schools?
  • A: Richardson stated that he has “no other recommendation for the board concerning what other data they should consider.”
  • Q: Has there been any discussion of opening additional schools?
  • A: Moore stated that we may need a new middle school in the Providence area.
  • Q: Why not simply redraw attendance zones to move Providence students back to Ed White?
  • A: The attendance zones question will have to wait until after the school closings have happened.

But evidently discussions of building new schools can happen anytime?

  • Q: Why is it necessary to move so quickly without presenting data?
  • A: Richardson states that a delay of a year will cause the system to lose $2 million. A delay will hurt education reform, but “it’s a community decision.”

I suspect that Richardson had fallen off message with that final comment about this being a community decision as it’s the first time in four meetings that he’s allowed for any community role in the decision making process at all (presumably other than the ballot box during school board elections).

  • Q: Will New Century retain a separate identity if it is moved to Lee High School?
  • A: Moore responded, “We don’t know.”

Again, as New Century’s separate identity is a question about the academic impact these closings will have, there has been no consideration given to it.

  • Q: Ms. Jackie Reed then stood to speak. As she often speaks at school board meetings and at these school closing meetings, the panel actually leaned back in their seats during her two minutes. She stated that she had seen a report about potentially demolishing schools that she recommended against. Furthermore she suggested that rather than forcing New Century to move, she would rather like to see the 200 Butler students who were moved out of Butler, returned to Butler. (Thus avoiding both of the High School recommendations found in the demographer’s report.) She concluded her comments by stating that the school board must be responsive.
  • A: The panel offered her suggestions and comments no response.

When did it become the policy of the board or it’s representatives to ignore the questions and statements of the public?

  • Q: Do magnet schools get additional funding?
  • A: Moore responded first by saying that when they were founded that they did get additional funding, but that over time that funding has returned to basically system levels. Richardson leapt to add, as he bears no responsibility for this whatsoever, that in his opinion a Magnet school, by definition, needs additional funding. Otherwise there’s no difference between a Magnet and non-Magnet school.
  • Q: As New Century operates on the block schedule and Lee doesn’t, how will the plan to combine New Century and Lee accommodate this difference?
  • A: Richardson quickly responds, “I can’t answer that.” Moore also claims that she cannot speak to that issue. No one has an answer.

Again, more evidence that none of these esteemed former superintendents, the top educators in their respective systems, have given any consideration at all about the educational impact of their recommendations.

  • Q: As Whitesburg Middle is operating at or near capacity, why are you considering closing it?
  • A: Wilson after consulting the report states that Whitesburg Middle has a capacity of 680. It has an enrollment of 608, thus, it is not operating “at or near capacity.” He further reminds the audience that there are other options offered to the board concerning Whitesburg Middle.

I suppose that Wilson’s definition of “at or near capacity” requires enrollment to be above 90%.

  • Q: There are a number of internal inconsistencies in the report. (New Century data is inconsistent in the report. Transfer chart shows students transferring out of and back into Butler.) Why doesn’t the report consider private school enrollment? As several private schools in the area are actively building new buildings to accommodate new student, what do these schools know about our city that the demographer doesn’t?
  • A: The questioner’s interpretation of the transfer data is flawed. It is possible for a student to both transfer into and out of the same school.

Every question concerning the accuracy of the demographer’s report receives the same response: the data is flawless. The problem is that the people interpreting the data (parents/community) are “mistaken in their interpretation.” After all, be certain to remember that Richardson, Wilson, Salmon, and Moore are all highly esteemed former superintendents. Of course, Richardson, Wilson, Salmon, and Moore are far too busy to offer any evidence that might support their claim of a flawed interpretation. You just need to trust them.

Honestly, if you wrote it in a book, no one would believe you.

  • Q: Has the consolidation of Madison City Schools, Madison County Schools and Huntsville City Schools been considered?
  • A: Moore responses, “That’s been thought of, but it’s not very popular.”

In other words, Madison City and County hurt themselves laughing at such a proposal.

  • Q: Another parent stood to question the quality of the data. 800 students fled Butler because the system has been ignoring it for so long.
  • A: Wilson claims that “the data is in the report” and it is correct.
  • Q: The questioner asked again, “Where is that data?” After waiting for a response, she then stated, “I’ll accept your response as, ‘I don’t know.'”
  • Q: What is the timeline on seeing financial improvements?
  • A: Richardson responds that the deficit had to be addressed this spring.
  • Q: After reprimanding the crowd for shouting questions from the floor, the floor microphone moderator Don Phelps stood to ask Richardson his own question. He asked, “What happens when the state comes in?”
  • A: Richardson gladly responded to this hanging curveball by saying, “The state will offer no public input on the cuts, they will just happen. That’s not the best way to go.”

It’s always good to be able to have your own staff ask you questions that you really want to answer, isn’t it? So, the difference between what Richardson and Wilson are doing and what the state might do is that Richardson and Wilson, who are making a combined $1,100 per day for coming to these meetings, are willing to come to these meetings to hear the public out.

In other words, really, you little people who aren’t making $1,100 per day should be happy we’re showing up to listen to your “ideas” at all.

  • Q: Since the Merts building is so expensive, why don’t you sell it and move the central office to an unused property like Stone or Lincoln Mill?
  • A: Just as the Whitesburg Church buying Whitesburg Middle/Elementary is a “rumor,” that there are many buyers hoping to purchase the Merts building is also a rumor.

And so concluded the fourth school closure meeting at Columbia High School.

The fifth and final meeting will be held tonight at the Lee High School cafeteria at 6:30pm. I will again be there live-tweeting. Feel free to follow along on twitter @russwinn.

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