A chorus of parents from across the area told the DeKalb County School System on Wednesday it needs to rethink its proposed school closures and redistricting plans and minimize the number of students affected.
Hundreds of parents packed Shamrock Middle School's gym and cafeteria to offer input on two proposals designed by MGT of America–consultants the school system hired–that could close 14 schools including Medlock Elementary School and change attendance zones across the county. The changes would help reduce more than 11,000 empty seats countywide.
Many parents said they were there to make sure their school communities remained intact, and they didn't want to see the middle or high schools their children are scheduled to attend change. PTAs from Sagamore Hills, Fernbank and Medlock elementary schools and Lakeside High School organized groups of parents to attend the meeting with talking points to offer to the consultants.
Ignacio Taboada, a parent at Oak Grove Elementary School, said he lives in a small area that would shift to Briarlake Elementary School's attendance zone in the proposed plans. The consultants created two proposals, a centralized plan and a less aggressive decentralized plan that would affect fewer students. It would leave the district with 6,769 open seats and affect 12,900 students. The centralized model would leave the district with 5,866 open seats and affect 16,100. Most changes, however, will occur in southern DeKalb County, which hosts the largest percentage of empty seats.
But Taboada said would prefer if the district left his child's school alone.
"The schools are crowded because they're good," he said. "They should not try to break up what is already working."
In each public input meeting, parents are split up into tables of roughly eight people that elect a note-taker and a speaker. The group is asked to discuss what they like about the proposals and what they would change. After an hour of discussion, each table reports its thoughts and recommendations to the consultants and the crowd of parents.
Parents at Wednesday's three-hour meeting–the second of six scheduled across the county–offered many specifics but appeared to generally agree that too many students were affected by the proposed redistricting plans, and they wanted them scaled back. Many said they believed the plans' approval process, which ends in early March with a final school board vote, has been rushed. Others said they didn't believe the recommendations were supported with adequate data, including how much money the school system projected to save with each proposed change. Several parents also said they didn't understand why consultants did not use data from the most recent Census.
"I think it's probably a rushed process," said Tommy Houseworth, co-president of Medlock Elementary's PTA. "Is this the best way to save money?"
The school system tried to close schools last year by asking a committee of parents and community members to make their own recommendations. But after weeks of infighting and indecision, the committee voted to delay any decision until now. Parents, who watched from the sidelines, generally resorted to emotional pleas before the committee and the school board.
But Wednesday's meeting revealed a far more organized response from PTAs and parents. Houseworth said the Medlock Elementary PTA formed a committee to recommend changes to keep the school open, including new maps drawn by a parent who also happens to be a topographer. Parents from Sagamore Hills Elementary wore T-shirts printed specifically for the meeting. Fernbank Elementary's PTA sent an e-mail to parents before the meeting with instructions detailing what they should say to the consultants and how to command the meeting and their individual tables.
"Control the pen, control the [mic], or better yet, both," the e-mail said. "Each table will have a [note-taker] – be it. Each table will have a 'reporter' who will speak for 2 min. – be it."
Lakeside High's PTSA also sent out a similar e-mail urging parents to make it clear the school system should not split the pattern of schools that feeds into the high school. The e-mail detailed several ways in which PTSA members believe the proposals violate values the school board and consultants have said they want to preserve, including the preservation of neighborhoods.
"Most everyone is on the same page," said a resident who said she lived near Lakeside High. "Too many children will be disrupted."
Scott Sheppard, a parent at Briarlake Elementary, said he was concerned about proposed changes that would move his children from Henderson Middle School to Shamrock Middle and from Lakeside High to Druid Hills High School – schools he said that don't perform as well.
"Why are we sending children from higher-performing schools to lower-performing schools?" he said. "What parent would allow that?"
Other points attendees made to the consultants include:
- Cut from the school system's administration before looking to save money by closing and redistricting schools.
- Don't move students from a school with a specialized curriculum such as International Baccalaureate to a school with a different program.
- More study should be dedicated to how proposed changes would affect traffic, particularly in the Emory University area.
- Lean toward keeping high-performing schools, such as Fernbank Elementary, intact.
- Sell decommissioned or unused school system buildings and use the cash to expand high-performing schools. Several Fernbank Elementary parents said instead of sending a large chunk of their attendance zone to nearby Briar Vista Elementary School, more students should be sent to them.
Several parents said they appreciated the more inclusive public input process and hoped the consultants would consider their recommendations.
"The program was managed very professionally," said Donna Toulme, a parent at Druid Hills High. "I just hope the [school] board's listening."
Four public input forums remain. The schedule is as follows:
- Thursday, Jan. 20, 6:30pm @ Chamblee High School
- Tuesday, Jan. 25, 6:3opm @ McNair High School
- Wednesday, Jan. 26, 6:30pm @ Bethune Middle School
- Thursday, Jan. 27, 6:30pm @ Stone Mountain Middle School
Interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson is scheduled to make her recommendation to the school board Feb. 7. The board will hold two public hearings regarding Tyson's recommendation on March 1 and 3, and the board will vote March 7.