Q&A: HCS Closing Meeting #5 Continued–Guidelines and Methodology

In this concluding section, the panel received several questions concerning the guidelines and methodology that the board gave them as they began to develop their recommendations. In the past, this has been the type of question that Richardson, Wilson and Moore have ignored. As such, I’m convinced that there is much more to the directions the demographer was given than we have been told. If you missed the earlier posts you can find them here and here.

Here are the concluding questions and answers from the final public meeting.

Wilson's Report

  • Q: Monte Sano is a good, award-winning school that should be held up as a model for the rest of the system. (Richardson interrupted the question to say that he agreed.) Can you share with us the methodology of the demographic study? What specific instructions did Dr. Salmon or Dr. Wilson receive concerning the methods he should employ in developing this study?
  • A: Richardson, specifically ignoring the question about the methodology used in developing this report stated, “We know that Monte Sano is a good school. Size is the only factor being considered here.” Wilson pointedly offered no comment.

They have consistently refused to offer any insight into the development of the demographer’s report, and yet this is the only factor that Richardson believes the board should consider when making their decision. Setting everything else aside, this should be enough justification to not close a single school.

  • Q: Will the demographer’s numbers concerning capacity be verified by an independent auditor?
  • A: Wilson, deciding not to ignore this question, responded, “The numbers are accurate and conservative.” Richardson claimed that the board will confirm the numbers. While capacity can be affected by the students attending the school, Special Education can drive capacity down, capacity is fairly consistent.

Please note that the capacity numbers, which are the only numbers contained in the demographer’s report arguing for school closings, will not be independently verified.

  • Q: Can we see what the school’s numbers would look like if transfers were not allowed?
  • A: Wilson claimed that this was a good question and that this data would be published on the web.

As of today, five days after this meeting, this information has not been posted on the Huntsville City Schools website.

  • Q: What guidelines were given to the demographer in the development of this study?
  • A: Richardson, awkwardly passed this question off to Wilson, to which Wilson responded, “I’ll try.” He then said, “The guidelines were to do a demographic study.” Salmon’s approach was to get to know the community and provide recommendations. He did good work.

As I pointed out in my Unanswered Questions post, there is specific evidence in the Huntsville Times article in January that the board had already spoken publicly about the need to close several of the schools that are listed in the demographer’s report for closing. While the Times article found that there were 11 schools operating below capacity, the only schools on that list to also be included in the demographer’s report six months later were the ones that the board singled out in their comments.

  • Q: Jackie Reed, (who can only expect to be ignored when she asks questions at this point), stood to ask, “Why did we build Lee when the projected enrollment will not come close to the projected capacity?”, “Why do we keep building schools?”, and “Who many new schools are scheduled to be built?”
  • A: Richardson broke his pattern of ignoring Reed and responded, “Since we have more schools than we currently need, I do not foresee a need for any new schools to be built.”

Again, no one has attempted to provide any answer for why the new Lee High school is needed when the old Lee High School is predicted to be operating at one-third its capacity in ten years.

  • Q: Will the likelihood of selling a property be considered in the decision to close a property?
  • A: Richardson stated that even if all the schools on the list were closed, only one or two have to possibility of being sold.
  • Q: A community member stood and commented that it was sad that some of the school board members have left and that his questions are having to be asked of people who aren’t going to be affected by the outcome of the decisions being made. He stated that “White people won’t send their kids to black schools,” and that we need some more alternatives at the high school level. He wants to fight for Butler.
  • A: Richardson responded, “I’m retired, but I’m committed to promoting public education. It’s difficult when the top city in the state has a school system that is struggling.” His voice broke slightly when he said that he wants the system to improve.

Dr. Richardson, on this you and this entire city agrees: we all want a good public school system. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that the data you’re offering isn’t convincing.

  • Q: Will closing schools help the segregation of system is struggling with?
  • A: Richardson responded that once the system achieves unitary status, then yes it will help the segregation issue.

Again, he’s avoiding the question. Yes, Dr. Richardson, we know that since unitary status means that segregation is no longer an issue for a system. We know that achieving unitary status will mean that we have improved the segregation issue. The question was, will these current recommendations move us closer to unitary status? To that, he has offered no answer.

  • Q: We need to discuss the basics about what a school is. Are there limits on the size of a school? What are the maximum number of students allowed to attend a school at each level?
  • A: Richardson stated that an elementary schools should be at least around 300, and that a High school should be between 1,000 and 1,300 which would allow for the high school to have a better athletics program and more National Merit finalists. Moore also responded that the system tries to cap a teacher’s load at 150 students per day. At the elementary level that number stays at 18-25 students per class.

I did not capture the numbers that they stated a middle school should be capped at, but I suspect this is the reason the question was asked.

  • Q: Have principals of the schools being discussed been consulted?
  • A: Richardson responded, “No, not yet. This will have to happen as the board moves closer to a decision.”

Richardson then proceeded to conclude the meeting with a speech calling on the board to be willing to make annual adjustments to the budget. He claims that had this been done, we wouldn’t be in the financial situation we current find ourselves. He concludes by again blaming parents for standing in the way of progress. He states, “The board needs to avoid simply greasing the squeaks and do what’s right for the system as a whole.”

While Richardson may be right in his assessment that too many decisions have been made based on squeaky wheels, the way to correct this problem is not by limiting public input at board meetings. The best way to correct this problem is to encourage more involvement in the decision-making process, not less. Their current approach of limiting public comment will only exacerbate the issues our system is facing.

At the end of the five meetings, we the public are still left with nearly every question we have asked unanswered. It’s nice that Mr. Blair believes that “all the recommendations have merit.” It would be even nicer if he had actually attended more than one of the meetings and attempted to share with the public just exactly what “merit” he was seeing that we did not.

The Demographer’s Report is fundamentally flawed, and it cannot be used as the basis for closing schools. It is certainly possible that a case can be made that some schools need to be closed. It’s much easier to imagine that a case should have been made two years ago that building a new Lee High Schools wasn’t necessary. After all $40 million would have us completely operating in the black right now. But they haven’t made the case for closing schools yet.

Dr. Wilson, Dr. Salmon, Dr. Moore, and Dr. Richardson have not offered any justification for closing any of the schools named in the report. If the board moves forward on the basis of this report, they will be condemning our school system to substandard performance for decades to come by increasing class sizes, increasing commute times, increasing student overcrowding, and decreasing parental involvement (why should we be involved when the system has systematically ignored us in the decision making process?).

We are at a turning point for this system, and right now, we’re turning the wrong way.

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


  1. Russ,
    I don’t know you, but have been following your blog for several weeks now. I’ve even suggested that some of my friends check it out as I believe that
    you’ve done an excellent job of addressing the meetings, problems, inconsistancies, etc. Thank you. My daughter attends Whitesburg. She is only 8 and is scared and confused(and worried) about rumors that her school is closing. I decided to attend the first meeting at Hsv High – to find out what I could about this. Although I initially came with questions in my heart about her school, by the time I left the first meeting, it had morphed in to so much more. As I reviewed the demography study, the school board ‘process’, listened intently to the passionate pleas from parents, and concerned community members…I became consumed. After hearing the details , studying different reports on the web, in the newspaper, talking with parents at other schools….I feel this entire proposition to close these schools is a terrible plan. I am dismayed that it has come to this and so scared that this school board is not going to take the ‘high road’ and think about the long term implications of our children futures, our schools and our entire city. What mismanagement! What short term thinking! Why close viable schools like Whitesburg and Mountain Gap ? It just doesn’t make sense…. How can we stop this insanity>>>>>>???? I’m worried that our communities and parents will just give up… How can we work to save all these wonderful schools???

    1. Monica,

      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write. It means a lot to know that I’m not talking to the air!

      Concerning your daughter, I know how you feel. My 7 year old (at Mt. Gap) has been in tears more than once over all of this. She’s taken to watching the news on a regular basis, and is convinced that Mt. Gap is going to be closed. In short, thanks to a complete lack of planning on the part of the board and the system as a whole, my daughter is growing up much sooner than she should.

      And yes, I’m upset about that.

      Concerning what we can do:

      1. Talk to everyone you know. Tell them your opinions about the report and the plan to close schools. Encourage them to read it for themselves. Get them to share their opinions with you and others. I’m certain that the hope (on the part of at least some of the board) is that as time passes and the summer progresses, people will lose interest. We have to keep that from happening by talking to people.
      2. Go to the board meetings. They are held on the 1st and 3rd Thursdays every month at 5:30, except when they change it. When you can’t go, watch it on ETV, but going is better. It lets the board see you and see that you’re serious.
      3. Contact the board members. I’ve posted email addresses for every board member on the Contact Info Page at http://www.geekpalaver.com/huntsville-city-school-board-contact-information/. I would recommend starting with your board member (Dr. Robinson), but I would contact the others as well. With just a single exception, I’ve been impressed with the board’s responsiveness to email contacts. If you include your other contact information, they will often call you as well. This doesn’t mean that they will agree with you, but you are at least being heard.
      4. Organize. Get other people involved and call meetings to discuss the issue. Invite your board member to attend if she is able. (I have found Dr. Robinson to be extremely approachable and interested in hearing what parents have to say. Again, she and I don’t agree regularly, but she will listen.)
      5. After July 5th, contact Dr. Casey Wardynski, the new superintendent, and give your opinion (and the opinion of as many people as you can speak for) to him directly. I don’t know Dr. Wardynski (and no I didn’t support him in the selection process), but I am hopeful that he will at least be willing to listen.
      6. Friend and Support your Teachers, Aides, Staff and Principals. They are the ones caught in the middle, and they often feel like no one is standing up and fighting for them. They have been asked to pay the price for a lack of leadership with their jobs and salaries (which have been frozen for everyone and lowered to the state minimum for all newly starting teachers). Despite the flawed leadership of this system, Huntsville still has absolutely superb teachers. They need to hear from parents regularly about everything: good, bad, suggestions, encouragement, and even criticism (of the constructive nature) if it is needed. I have not encountered a single teacher in this system who doesn’t desperately crave parental involvement and support. Whenever possible, speak publicly in support of our teachers. I’ve never met a good teacher who was teaching for the money. Now that they are getting paid less and being asked to teach more (class sizes are going to be dramatically larger next year), they need our praise and support more than ever. If we can offer that as a community, we will continue to attract good teachers even though the leadership of the system isn’t paying them what they’re worth.

      So, that’s my long-winded response. And again, thanks for asking your question. Not only do I get to learn that my little girl isn’t alone in her concern for her school, but I’m also getting another blog post out of my response! 🙂 I’ll probably be posting this tonight!

      The one really great thing about this ridiculousness is that our community is becoming an even stronger community because of our having the opportunity to work together. Hopefully Dr. Wardynski will recognize this and do everything he can to involve the community in the decision-making process he’s going to face full-force on Tuesday, July 5th.

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