The final public forum meeting was held on Tuesday, June 21, 2011 at the Lee High School Auditorium. Drs. Wilson, Moore, and Richardson conducted the meeting as usual, with the Huntsville City Schools Board of Education in attendance. Well everyone that is except Mr. David Blair. By my count he attended exactly one of the meetings. (Thank you for your interest in our schools, Mr. Blair.)
Before I begin with a recap of the evening, I want to take a moment to say thank you to Mr. Birney, Ms. McCaulley, Ms. Morrison, and especially to Dr. Robinson (my board member) for their presence at the meetings and especially for their willingness to spend time after the meetings talking to the public. To be frank, those conversations were the most helpful part of these meetings. (For those of us who attended the meetings, I realize that’s not saying much. I do intend this as a complement for those four members of the board.)
The meeting was called to order by Tom Kennamer the moderator at about 6:35pm. He then implored us not to waste our limited time by shouting questions from the floor. Just a note to politicians hosting public forums with the goal of limiting the amount of time allotted to questions: make sure you hire Don Phelps and Tom Kennamer. They were excellent at slowing the process of questions and responses down.
By the way, how much were they paid to be there?
Anyway, eventually, we got to Dr. Wilson’s fifth presentation of Dr. Salmon’s demographer’s report which he claimed at least five times he was offering an abbreviated version of in order to get to questions as quickly as possible.
It was, actually, his slowest presentation of the five. His defensiveness concerning the quality of the work that his colleague and sometimes employee, Dr. Salmon, had put into the presentation to the board took center stage Tuesday. By my count he referred to the report as containing “accurate data” or “very real, exact data” at least six times in his “abbreviated” presentation.
Additionally, he claimed during his presentation that his “very real, exact data” is available to “any of you from the sources we used.”
Which begs the question, again, of why we paid $75,000 for this PowerPoint, and why we’re still paying Dr. Wilson $500 a day to defend it? At about 7:13pm, he took his seat for the first questions from the community.
- Q: Why do we need realignment?
- A: Richardson responded, “I believe that we will move forward regardless of the realignment decisions the board makes, but we need a quick turn around in the direction we’re heading.” He claims that closing schools will save $300,000 for every elementary school; $500,000 for every middle school; and $700,000 for every high school. These are state averages that Dr. Pouncey will confirm when he makes his presentation to the board on Thursday. Additionally, both he and Dr. Wilson have served as superintendents before, and they’re here to tell us that these numbers are quite conservative.” He concluded by stating that, “The community will lose $2-3 million a year if they keep these schools open.”
That last line was an interesting one. How exactly are we “losing” money by operating schools? If the children are being educated, and educated extremely well at places like Mt. Gap (first hand experience – my daughter, in first grade, completed assignments and research projects that would be difficult for a third or fourth grader), Monte Sano, New Century, and all the other schools on the closing list, how does that translate into “losing” money?
When you enter into a plan with a preconceived idea of what the outcome should be, suddenly, that’s the only outcome that makes any sense. When you’re a screwdriver, Dr. Richardson, everything starts looking like a screw that needs . . . well you know, don’t you?
- Q: As Governor’s Drive is already overcrowded at rush hour, I hope that the board will be taking traffic issues into consideration when making their decision. If these schools are closed, this will result in many of the areas being overcrowded. How will this be handled, and will we have to return to the Department of Justice in five years to submit a new zoning plan?
- A: Wilson responded, “You’re right. There will be overcrowding and as a result, rezoning will be needed to address this issue.” Richardson also responded that the Department of Justice is also a player in these decisions. After the closing decision is made by the board, then the re-zoning will need to happen. Richardson states that since the Department of Justice trumps the board, we have to get the board’s decision to the DoJ quickly.
So, if you were of the opinion that these closings are not affecting you or your child just because your school wasn’t on the closing list, you might want to re-read that answer (and one that Dr. Moore offered later in the night). The panel is of the opinion that redrawing the attendance zones will be a requirement in the near future. In other words, we haven’t even gotten started on this fight yet.
- Q: How can you justify closing schools when the surrounding schools cannot accommodate the influx of new students?
- A: Wilson responded again that the attendance zones will have to be re-drawn once the schools have been closed.
Another question that was not answered. He offered no justification for the closings. They were accepted as a given.
- Q: What will happen if the state comes in to take over?
- A: Richardson, unsurprisingly, claimed that this was a good question. He stated that the State Department of Education understands the problem. This is why he was called in to make cuts to avoid intervention by the state. “If the state takes over, effectively that means that the local board and community are unable to make the necessary cuts. This takes the local board and community out of the picture. When the intervention is completed, confidence in that board’s ability to lead will not exist.”
Let’s see if we can unpack that answer a bit. First, the community doesn’t want the state to intervene because it will do so without public input. Exactly how is that different from right now?
Sure they’re having a meeting where the public can speak for two minutes, but the board isn’t participating, they’re sitting in the back observing the state representative and his demographer field or ignore the questions. Every recommendation that he has made during his four month tenure has been adopted without debate and without responding to questions from the public. He has specifically told the board that they should ignore complaints from the public about his transportation recommendations.
And honestly, is there anyone in this city that still had confidence in the board’s ability to lead at this point?
Truthful, the biggest loser in this, had the state officially taken over in January, would have been Dr. Richardson. I doubt that the state would have paid him $600 a day.
So, respectfully, Dr. Richardson, quit pretending that the state hasn’t taken over already. Your threats that the public wouldn’t have a voice in the decisions being made have no weight as we don’t have a voice right now. We had no voice in the decision to segregate our children. We had no voice in the layoffs. We have only the illusion of a voice when it comes to the school closing recommendations that you’ve brought. You’re specifically telling the board to ignore the public voice concerning changes to school starting times and changes in the transportation schedules.
The public has been systematically sidelined during the past six months. At least if the state were here, they would have been up front about it.
- Q: If Ed White, Davis Hills and Westlawn Middle are combined, will there be three administrations?
- A: Wilson responded that he wasn’t sure, but that he was thinking of developing a “school within a school” middle school. (Which implies that when he or Dr. Salmon developed the “option” that he was not planning to cut administration of all three schools.) Richardson responded that if there were a super 6th grade school, 7th grade school, and 8th grade school developed, that would not result in cuts to administration. But he sees “many issues” with such a configuration.
This answer makes no sense at all. If the primary reason for closing these three middle schools is a financial one, and if most of the financial savings comes from cuts in personnel, then not cutting personnel means there’s no reason to close the schools to start with. Which means that if that “option” is exercised, that Richardson’s estimate of saving 2-3 million is too high. No real surprise there, though.
- Q: We need the actual numbers in evaluating the cuts that are being recommended. It would be foolish to make these decisions without knowing the actual fiscal numbers, transportation numbers and capacity ahead of time.
- A: No one responded to this.
Which I suppose should tell us, again, that they have no intention of presenting the actual numbers before the decision is made. Which should also tell us that they believe the actual numbers would, as Richardson said on June 2nd, “only confuse it at this point.”
In other words, the actual numbers would demonstrate that this $75,000 report is not the solution to the problem that Richardson, Moore, and Wilson are claiming it to be. Again, no real surprise there.
- Q: What are we doing to market the school buildings that have been already closed?
- A: Richardson responded first that, “none of the numbers [what numbers?] he’s presenting actually include the sale of the school building.” Moore then responded that all of the buildings are currently listed, but that they’ve had no real offers for them.
- Q: As Butler is in the worst condition of the current high schools, have the renovation costs been considered in the plan to use Butler the home to the three existing middle schools?
- A: Richardson stated that the condition, size, cost per student were included in the decision. He further claimed that they had already done a transportation analysis, but did not share where than analysis could be found. (Perhaps he was talking about the report he offered the board on Thursday, June 16th.) He further hopes that by October, the board will have made their decision so that all the actual data can then be quickly developed and sent to the Department of Justice for approval.
There’s no need, according to Richardson, to run actual hard numbers until after the board makes it’s decision on what schools to close.
- Q: A member of the community recommended the closing of several programs as a cost saving measure. Suggested cutting Driver’s Education, Family Consumer Science should be sent to technical schools, and we need to look for ways of enhancing revenue rather than closing schools.
- A: Richardson responded that when your personnel is 80% of your budget, you will have to make cuts to personnel to address financial issues. With the board approved cuts we’ve made so far, the system will have a surplus at the end of one year. He was then asked for clarification about that and Richardson stated again that the system would return to a “sound financial standing in two years without closing any schools. Closing schools would only speed the process.”
If the only reason we’re given to close schools is to address the financial problems that have already been addressed, why are we discussing these radical moves. Particularly, why are we discussing them without any specific data?
Ed. Note: The Q&A will continue in the postings to follow.