Protests may have saved Riley Elementary from closure

mstucka@macon.comDecember 19, 2013 

Interim Bibb Schools Superintendent Steve Smith says he underestimated the commitment of the Riley Elementary community when he suggest closing the school.

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Bibb County schools’ proposal to close old, small schools came under fire Thursday night, and the protests could save Riley Elementary School from closure.

With a public comment period that at times resembled a prayer meeting, several dozen neighbors, parents and students representing Riley protested plans to fold their school into a rebuilt Morgan Elementary School, which would be larger.

Numbers were rarely the focus of speakers, who told of how Riley Elementary works as much as a family as a school. Neighbors will let parents know if children take a detour on the way home from school, speakers said.

Sheryl Dozier, the mother of a kindergartner, told The Telegraph that neighbors even without children have been donating school supplies to support the school, which is an important part of the community.

“It’s a community school,” she said. “They provide a good education. I’ve met many of the teachers there, and they’re dedicated.”

Board President Wanda West told the crowd that the school board is still seeking public opinion on a five-year facilities plan and hasn’t made any decisions.

Riley Elementary has just 420 students, barely more than half of the 750 students interim Superintendent Steve Smith wants for each school. But Smith already was backing away from a plan to close Riley after hearing the speakers, saying he wouldn’t want to destroy what the neighborhood had worked so hard to build.

“Sometimes we look at things in terms of dollars and cents, and we try to make decisions that are based on what’s in the best financial sense of the school system,” he said before pausing. “You can’t put a dollar value on what we’ve just heard tonight.”

He said later he had made a mistake, and the kind of community that Riley Elementary fosters is more of what Bibb County needs. He will offer a new plan that will reconsider the closure of Riley Elementary, he said.

Riley is among a number of schools that would be closed. The draft facilities plan calls for eight elementary schools to be phased out: Barden, Bernd, Heard, Burghard, Morgan, King-Danforth, Rice and Riley.

New schools would be built on the campuses of Heard, King-Danforth and Morgan.

Bettie Williams, a 75-year-old retired Bibb County educator, said she meets friends every morning to pray before most people are awake to pray. They usually pray for the school board to make wise decisions for children.

She minced few words.

“To close Riley would not be a wise decision. Keep it open,” she said.

Board members separately approved a change of about $2 million so the new Heard Elementary would accommodate 750 students, an increase of 185 students. The school is now slated to be built for about $16.1 million.

Board members also discussed but did not vote on an early draft of a school calendar that would eliminate two teacher furlough days and add two days of school. More calendars will be proposed, and the school board has not begun to debate the high financial impact of reducing furloughs.

In other business, the board voted unanimously to select Kristy Graham, Vineville Academy’s assistant principal, to lead the school. Principal Paulette Winters retired after 37 years with the school district.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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