Fayette BoE wants facts, figures before discussing school closures

Key: School Board is ‘lacking any factual evidence’ for closing 3 F’ville schools

The Fayette County Board of Education on April 16 said in effect: Slow down and let’s examine the numbers before we talk about closing three Fayetteville schools.

Board member Marion Key suggested the school closing talk was premature, particularly since the board had not even started budget hearings. Key said the proper order was to figure out the budget numbers, then to talk about which schools need to be closed, if any.

Board member Bob Todd said the rural Inman elementary school should be considered for closing if any are to be shuttered.

The board had been scheduled to set the dates for public hearings on the proposed closure of Fayette Middle School along with Hood Avenue Primary School and Fayette Intermediate School with the idea of transferring the students of the two elementary schools to new but mostly empty Rivers Elementary.

As it turns out the board will soon have a workshop to discuss the details of Superintendent Jeff Bearden’s closure proposal that were initiated by board members Key and Todd.

The agenda item to set the dates for the public hearings was met with questions by Key and later by Todd.

“Now is not the time to make a hasty decision on an issue of this importance. I have many unanswered questions,” Key said. “If we proceed with Dr. Bearden’s proposal, we will be lacking any factual evidence and thus have not done our due diligence for the public and most importantly for our students.”

Key maintained that, in terms of priorities, the order of their importance has been reversed. She said focusing on the upcoming budget should precede the school closure conversation, and then only after the necessary research is completed on which schools to consolidate or close.

“Once the system arrives at the most efficient cost-saving measures related to the recommended school closures or consolidations then we can proceed with the public hearings and finalize our closure/consolidation plan,” said Key.

Key continued, noting that the public hearings should be held at times when parents are more likely to be in town and not during the summer vacation period as Bearden had proposed.

“By scheduling the hearings for the fall we will have given staff time to do the necessary analysis needed to make the best recommendation,” said Key, adding that there is no need to rush the process since any closing or consolidations would not take place until August 2013.

Key then read a long list of questions, similar to those read by Todd moments later, that pertained to Bearden’s proposal last week to close the three schools.

A sampling of those questions centered on topics such as a request to see the financial analysis that led to the recommendation to close the targeted schools, the number of students living in proximity to the existing schools, whether the closure of other schools was considered, the cost of transporting students to Rivers Elementary that is situated northwest of the city, the vacated schools being promoted as rentable space as a reason for closing them, what are the criteria for determining which schools should be closed, what rationale besides the age of the buildings was used to determine that Fayette Middle should close, was consideration given to maintaining the current feeder pattern for Fayette County High School and what was the rationale for recommending the closure of three Title I schools?

“Let’s look at all the analysis and all the data (relating to Bearden’s proposed closures),” Todd said. “I see no cost analysis and rationale why these three should be closed. No data that warrants or supports [closings].”

Board member Janet Smola disagreed, citing her belief that the information Todd referenced was in Bearden’s April 9 presentation on the closures.

“Some of the more specific questions (posed at the April 16 meeting) were not in the recommendation,” Bearden said in response.

Todd in his comments also included a topic for the board to consider. The three-part consideration included:

• Consolidating Hood Avenue Primary and Fayette Intermediate into one school in terms of administration since they occupy the same campus and are adjacent. The administrative consolidation would result in needing only one principal, one assistant principal, one counselor, one media specialist and one bookkeeper.

• Leave Rivers on Sandy Creek Road closed as an elementary school since it has no surrounding population center. Todd said there is no justifiable reason to disrupt the lives of more than 700 children and their families and to increase transportation costs.

• Consider closing the relatively new Inman Elementary and returning the students closer to their neighborhoods. Todd maintained that Inman was not needed and does not serve a population center. Inman is located approximately three miles from Fayetteville’s south side. Todd suggested using Hood/Fayette Intermediate, Spring Hill and Minter to absorb the Inman students. He said the closure would allow for some re-population of Brooks Elementary and would lower that school’s operating costs.

The discussion continued, with Bearden later saying that, “The board in March said it was ready for a recommendation. There are a lot of questions and answers as we go through the process.” Bearden then suggested that those issues be addressed in a workshop setting to determine the various questions and provide the answers.

“We’re starting the (closure) conversation. Nobody wants to do this. Not the parents, staff or school board,” Bearden said. “The reality is that enrollment and revenue keep going down. I don’t have a problem if it’s these or other schools.”

Chairman Leonard Presberg during the discussion said, “We can get these questions answered for every school scenario.”

Board member Terri Smith agreed, saying she could see the benefit of answering the questions ahead of the public hearings. Smith said she would like to see a mock-up of the closure proposals with the accompanying financial and transportation data.

“And then see what we as a community could live with. (Bearden’s) recommendation has a lot of merit and is probably what we need to do. But we need to bring the anxiety level down,” Smith said. “I think what we’re stuck on is wanting a clearer direction.”

Presberg in further comments said, “I think some of us would like to see numbers written down with justification.”

Bearden near the end of the discussion said the board is not at the place to set the dates for public hearings on the closure of the three schools, adding that he would poll the school board to set a date for a workshop to address the issues that had surfaced.

Bearden added that the process of closing schools can take seven to nine months and that a December deadline for making those decisions is still reasonable.

Not mentioned at either of the meetings where closures were discussed is another aspect of the overall issue. The three schools proposed for closure are all in the school board’s 4th voting district represented by Bob Todd. And Todd is the only one of the five board members not up for re-election later this year.

The number of people attending the board meeting was much greater than usual. As is customary, a large number of parents and children left after the recognitions and presentations. Beyond those numbers there were more than 100 people crammed into the foyer area due to the overflow crowd inside the meeting room. A number of those people gave up within the next hour because the speakers in the foyer area were not functioning.

The mix of people tended to be community residents wanting to hear the closure discussion, though the majority appeared to be school system employees interested in supporting many of the 28 speakers signed up for public comments advocating that their positions and benefits not be cut during budget talks that will be held beginning in May.

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