There is hardly a more contentious issue a school board can undertake than that of closing are merging schools. It is a fact of life that communities, neighborhoods — even cities — are living, breathing entities that expand and contract in all sorts of directions. Some sections of town, once vibrant, begin to decay as do the schools that dot their landscapes.
Such is the scenario the Bibb County Board of Education will have to navigate once Superintendent Curtis Jones makes his recommendation. It has been in these waters before, albeit with different crew members. Redding was closed after great outcry as Heritage and Skyview elementaries came online in 2002. Southeast High School was closed to similar consternation in 2004. Ballard Hudson Middle School now sits on that site.
Elementary schools are now again in the cross-hairs and a declining student population in certain areas of the city is the reason. The discussion is focused on Riley, L.H. Williams and Brookdale elementary schools. Their lower than efficient student population put them at risk for closing or consolidation.
While the district and superintendent are up front with possible plans now, rumors that minds had been made up to close L.H. Williams have dogged the district and mobilized the Pleasant Hill Community where the school sits. While Jones has been clear that no decisions had been made on several occasions, the community has historically suffered from either intentional neglect, or as state Rep. James Beverly put it, “benign neglect.” Petitions were started and community members took to showing up at school board meetings.
There are factors of which there can be no doubt. The school system is required by the state to develop a five-year facilities plan. That plan could include building new facilities, closing older ones or keeping the status quo. Even with the five-year plan, the process is hopelessly inefficient. The manner in which the state doles out its share of money for construction, if that’s what the plan calls for, always puts communities in the position of funding facilities and then waiting on state money.
And there is another factor that every board member knew was heading down the tracks. As more charter schools open, fewer classrooms are needed in the traditional public school setting. That’s the case whether the charter school is approved by the district, such as the Academy For Academic Excellence, or the state, like Cirrus Academy with its STEM curriculum and the Dream Academy that will open next school year bringing a focus on music and the arts.
One of the reasons the elementary grades are expected to be hit the hardest is because charter schools, ACE, Cirrus and Dream, all started at the elementary level with some middle grades, with plans to expand as the children age to grades 9-12. And the charter school movement could continue. The board will soon consider the application of Bloomfield Preparatory Academy. While its application was denied last year, its board has notified the district of its intention to resubmit an application addressing the board’s concerns. The deadline is in March and other applications could also be submitted, although the schools, if approved, would probably not open next year.
We are not prepared to endorse any of the suggestions that have been made about combining L.H. Williams and Brookdale or Riley. The Pleasant Hill neighborhood is steeped in history, much of it flowing from L.H. Williams. The area has strong strategic partnerships working through the Pleasant Hill Community Development Corporation and, if such a thing is possible, the reconfiguration of I-75/I-16 interchange has brought more resources to the area. The school and the PHCDC have already been working with groups that include Campus Clubs, Mercer University and Rotary.
Riley also sits at the center of its community and has faced the prospect of closing before. It has been on a list to be rebuilt or closed since 2009. Brookdale, the newest of the three, has been renovated since first constructed.
It is refreshing to see communities respond, even if they do so in a time of crisis, to issues surrounding their children’s education. The board and superintendent would do well to continue the dialogue, remain transparent, and keep an open mind to solutions that might arise out of these listening sessions. What we don’t want to see is a situation created where school communities are pitted against one another. If that happens, we all lose.