In a 5-3 vote at a called board meeting Wednesday night, the Bibb County school board approved an amended Macon Miracle that no longer calls for closing up to 12 elementary schools.
Board members who approved the schools-improvement plan said the system of nearly 25,000 students should move forward with a vision for changing Bibb County’s schools for the better.
Board President Tommy Barnes, along with board members Wanda West, Susan Middleton, Tom Hudson and Ella Carter signed off on the plan. Board members Gary Bechtel, Sue Sipe and Lynn Farmer voted in opposition. Bechtel unsuccessfully tried to table the decision to allow the board and public to get more specifics on the plan before voting.
The Macon Miracle, which is school Superintendent Romain Dallemand’s plan to boost the county’s public schools, includes the introduction of Mandarin Chinese to the curriculum, eventual year-round schools and school choice based on student interest.
“What you saw tonight is a vote for students,” Dallemand said after the meeting. Most of the standing-room-only crowd was vocally supportive of the plan, and some wore pro-Macon Miracle T-shirts.
In response to public opinion about various parts of the plan, Dallemand offered an altered version for the school board to consider.
The new plan, which Dallemand promised again Wednesday would not raise taxes, eliminates language that would have closed up to 12 elementary schools and leveled class sizes by closing schools and reconfiguring grade levels.
Instead, the school system will set up task forces to examine grade-level configurations and facilities within the school building guidelines of the 2009 education special purpose local option sales tax. Some schools still could eventually close.
Many of the proposal’s changes approved Wednesday centered on security and discipline concerns, including hiring mental health professionals to work with students with disciplinary problems.
Dallemand said parents now will be able to opt their children out of Mandarin Chinese courses, but specifics of how that would work were not discussed at the meeting. Other plan changes include added measures to improve students’ and parents’ access to technology.
After discussing changes in the plan, Dallemand recited the children’s nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty” and made an analogy to the school system.
“Board members, the difference is in our case, we simply cannot afford not to put Humpty together again.”
With Wednesday’s approval, the school system will release a management plan that includes more information about how the plan is to be carried out, and separate plans for each school.
After the meeting, Sipe raised concerns about not having more details before having to vote.
“We haven’t seen the implementation plan,” she said. “We have no idea when it’ll be implemented.”
Before the vote, Sipe, Bechtel and Farmer raised questions about the plan’s financial ramifications.
While Bechtel praised Dallemand for changing the plan in response to public concerns, he still didn’t think he had enough information to cast an affirmative vote.
“I’m not one willing to give anybody a blank check,” he said. “Honestly, I’ve not been convinced based on performance of this administration that they’re worthy of a blank check at this point.”
Other board members, including Hudson, said the board will need to approve the plan’s budget before it can be carried out. “The bottom line is we have been good stewards of taxpayer money,” Hudson said.
He also criticized the notion that the school system will be able to spend public money at will. “It’s a myth. We have not given the superintendent a blank check That’s a misunderstanding,” Hudson said.
Wednesday night, Farmer, Bechtel and Sipe called for an independent financial review of the system’s spending and contracts with consultants and contractors, according to a statement they released after the meeting.
“The superintendent has not been forthcoming to us as it relates to these items and as a result we publicly call for an investigation in order to protect the interest of Bibb County taxpayers,” the statement said.
Dallemand said the system currently is undergoing a forensic audit of its spending.
Other board members such as Middleton addressed matters such as school discipline, asking whether a teacher’s decision to send a student to the office would be enforced, based on her personal experience as a teacher.
“I need assurance in your plan that is not going to happen,” Middleton said.
Later, she asked whether students who have been expelled from other systems would be allowed to attend Bibb schools. Dallemand said those issues would be addressed according to state guidelines.
Dallemand, himself a father of two students in the Bibb school system, said he also wants to make sure students have a safe learning environment.
Later, Middleton said she was satisfied with Dallemand’s answers and said the plan received the attention of all parts of the community.
The approval of the strategic plan “is really the first step,” Middleton said. “Now the work begins.”
The vote angered some parents such as Angel Davis Hopper.
“I think it’s disgusting,” she said. “This is a free ticket for (Dallemand) to do whatever he wants. People have no idea what’s going on. ... I’m very speechless, very upset.”
Hopper said she and other concerned parents would continue to challenge and be vocal about the plan despite its passage.
Dorothy P. Johnson, a retired Bibb County educator, said she is happy the board approved the plan.
“We need to work to raise the (test) scores of our children,” she said. “I like the plan. I like anything that will improve the education of our children. It’s very much needed. Discipline is very important. ... You can’t stand still. Our test scores are too low. Some change is better than no change.”
Staff writer Phillip Ramati contributed to this report.