OEDEL: Bibb’s broken promise plan

January 20, 2013 

The Promise Neighborhoods program was set up by the Obama administration’s Department of Education in 2010 to build “a complete continuum of cradle-to-career solutions of both educational programs and family and community supports, with great schools at the center.”

The program was designed in light of the Harlem Children’s Zone, popularized by “60 Minutes,” the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” and President Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign. That Harlem program is built on the back of three solid charter schools led by charismatic Geoffrey Canada, who decided to quit waiting for Superman and just assume that mantle himself, a role also apparently fancied by Bibb’s Superintendent Romain Dallemand.

Even assuming that Dallemand is up for Superman’s job, and that you buy the idea of a “cradle-to-career” role for government as surrogate parent, there are glaring design problems with Bibb’s proposed Promise Neighborhood Center.

First, great charter schools aren’t at the center of Unionville, Tindall Heights or anywhere else in Bibb. Those neighborhoods’ regular public schools, Hartley, Ingram-Pye, Ballard-Hudson Middle and Southwest High, aren’t great, either, being among the worst in Bibb County, and so also among the worst in Georgia and the nation.

Second, Bibb’s Promise Neighborhood Center, which was rejected for funding by the U.S. Department of Education in December, isn’t designed to change the local school landscape.

Instead of transforming the old Ballard-Hudson elementary school into a charter school, the plan takes that building and cuts it up into a rabbit warren of offices for welfare-type bureaucrats primarily serving welfare-recipient parents. So much for the kids. Any parents or kids who wind up in that maze risk getting lost forever in a Kafka-esque bureaucratic fun-house.

Third, Harlem’s program was created in a walkable locale, originally one New York City block, now a zone of about 10 blocks by 10 blocks. By contrast, most people in Bibb’s target neighborhoods would have no easier time getting to the proposed Promise Center than to other existing welfare-type offices. So even as a matter of efficient welfare service delivery, there’s scant advantage to the center.

The co-principal grant writer for Bibb’s Promise Neighborhood Center, Mercer’s Peter Brown, sticks by Bibb’s plan to let welfare bureaucrats cannibalize a school even after the DOE declined to fund the center and The Telegraph revealed the lease’s cost to have been wildly inflated. I offered Brown the chance to explain, qualify, or back off from his and his partnership’s inexplicably-continuing support for the plan. Brown declined to be quoted.

So what are we to do now after even Obama’s DOE rejected this absurd plan?

Construction should be halted immediately on renovations. The school system’s lease, worth $5,750,000 over 10 years for just half of the building, should be unwound with the help of independent counsel.

That whole building was purchased four years ago from the system for less than 4 percent of the temporary lease cost, raising overwhelming legal questions about the lease’s enforceability.

Many Bibb kids do need extra help. Their family support is lacking. But there are more effective programs to help them at a fraction of the cost, like our local chapter of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. That chapter has already been acknowledged as the best chapter nationwide.

More long run, to cultivate the “great schools” identified by Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative as the essential programmatic backbone, it’s first important to get a great charter school going here in Macon, just as they did in Harlem.

It’d be wonderful if Unionville’s and Tindall Heights’ schools were already great. But it’s foolishness to pretend that we’ll fix those schools by building more offices somewhere else for welfare bureaucrats.

Bibb’s Promise Center proposal is fatally flawed, and should be abandoned. Even if radical changes could be made to the proposal now, the feds will likely deny any operating grant because of Bibb’s now-notorious real estate rip-off.

Bibb’s promise was broken from the start, because it was to welfare bureaucrats, not kids. Let’s start again, this time with the kids’ interests first.

David Oedel teaches contract law at Mercer University Law School. He’s the parent of a public school student.

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