I don't have any kids in school largely because I don't have any kids period, so I've never been personally affected by neighborhood school closings. I note, however, that often such closings raise tempers to a fever pitch. And why not? Schools are the life of many communities, and small schools are good for children. We know that small classes are good for learning, and that schools in neighborhoods are good for families and for children.
One of numerous reasons the Alabama State Department of Education's plan to close 18 Birmingham neighborhood schools is drawing fire is that as on so many local issues nobody bothered to consult the locals.
The decision to close schools was been made without public input and largely on the basis of something called the “Guide Management Report.” Guide Management is a construction management company with no expertise in school planning, and discrepancies have been found in the report. So parents and neighborhood activists have some real questions they'd like to have answered. Last Monday was the first time they had a chance.
“Is this plan to close and consolidate and merge schools academically sound?” asked
Citizens for Better Schools' Executive Director Ron Jackson. This last Saturday Jackson urged Birmingham City Schools students to consider a walkout to grab the attention of school officials in Montgomery, he said at a meeting with some concerned parents Saturday.
Brenda Bell and Cheryl Kennemore, who have children in Wenonah Elementary School, said parents should help try to save their neighborhood schools. Bell said Wenonah Elementary has more than 300 students and should not be closed.
"I feel like we need a walkout, especially at Wenonah Elementary," Bell said. She said she heard the school would be leveled to make way for a parking lot for the new Wenonah High School's football stadium. "Taking away education for a parking lot? That's not acceptable."
Someone always wants to build a parking lot.
Mayor Larry P. Langford isn't thrilled with what the state is up to either. “Schools are first. Schools are built around communities, not vice-versa. What law gives the state the right to close our schools - Who built them?” Langford told school board members as he announced his intention to ask the Birmingham City Council to “put up a $15 million letter of credit to help comply with the requirement to develop and maintain one month’s operating reserve fund” for Birmingham schools.
State education officials have given Birmingham school leaders a March 1 deadline to submit a plan to raise a $20 million reserve fund to comply with school financial accountability laws, recommending closing 18 city schools to do so. One month’s operating costs for city schools is about $20 million.
FYI, the school district has eighty percent (80%) of its students eligible for free or reduced price lunches and overcrowded classrooms.
Parents, students and neighborhood leaders in Birmingham have been here before. And they remember.
“They came up with the same crazy scheme in 2003, close schools, fire teachers, bus drivers, and lunchroom workers to ‘balance’ their budget.” Germaina Park neighborhood president William “Bill” Gains said. “What happened? They were back in operating deficit in 2006-2007, and with an even bigger defect in 2007-2008. It not that we’ve had decline in enrollment; these people (Mims and school board members) can’t manage! We have a top-heavy administration, and over-paid staff - the finance director keeps getting raises while his revenue projections never hit the mark,” Mr. Gains added.
Just firing administrators excess baggage at the school board will save million a year says Dr. Ron Jackson of the Better Schools group.
And in fact, a report from the Council of the Great City Schools commissioned by the Birmingham Board of Education says the Birmingham city school district is hampered by a bloated administration. The report recommends reorganizing top management around four departments: Instruction, finance, human resources and operations and eliminating
entire layers of management. It doesn't recommend closing schools or firing teachers.
The Birmingham News says that for more than a decade there have been complaints, within the school system and from outside, of too many administrators, support workers and layers of bureaucracy in the central office, especially for a dramatically shrinking system.
Citizens for Better Schools have analyzed school district operating costs for all city schools. Director Jackson , said, “...small neighborhood schools controlled operating costs better than Birmingham’s large schools, and some even returned money to the school district, operating under their allocated budgets. It is, and always has been, a myth that small schools are too costly to operate economically. We have yet to find a school district that has improved academic achievement and controlled cost by closing schools and firing teachers."
Yet that is the state's plan and to hell with what anyone else thinks.
Richard Franklin, a special education paraprofessional at Birmingham's Huffman Middle School said, “We are already short on staff; students whose IEPs (Individual Education Plans) require aides can’t get them because of last year’s cuts. What are we to do with fewer schools and more students in classrooms that are already overcrowded; are we to ‘Make Bricks without straw.”“ (I didn't know you made bricks with straw, but that's a whole other story).
The following is from WBRC TV in Birmingham, Alabama.
Rally Attempts to Save Wenonah Elementary
A group of Wenonah Elementary School students plan a major rally later today to protest a plan to close the school. Wenonah Elementary School is one of the 18 schools on the shutdown list in Birmingham. Superintendent Stan Mims says it is a necessary cost cutting move, but the parents organizing this rally say their school should not be on the closure list. They say there is an ulterior motive beyond saving the money mandated by the state board of education. Organizers of the rally plan to host the protest after school today. They say they hope a strong parent turnout will send a message to the school board.