Muscogee County School Board to consider closing Edgewood Elementary School

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comApril 27, 2013 

A tornado destroyed Edgewood Elementary School 60 years ago, but the Muscogee County School District reopened the school a year later.

Now, a different kind of storm threatens the school's existence.

The Muscogee County School Board will consider the potential closing of Edgewood during a called meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Edgewood is the only facility named in the meeting notice the administration emailed Tuesday afternoon. Since then, no administrator has been made available to explain the proposal. In response to the Ledger-Enquirer's request for any documents pertaining to the potential closing of Edgewood, district communications director Valerie Fuller replied in an email, "There are no documents responsive to your request."

School board members the Ledger-Enquirer contacted this past week said they weren't aware of such a plan and haven't seen a proposal, although they did acknowledge that interim Superintendent John Phillips has said tough decisions were coming in the wake of state budget cuts.

In a voice mail, Fuller said, "That information has not been shared with the board yet, so the public and media and the board will get it at the same time. This is a proposal that's coming. All of those details will be discussed at the meeting."

Parent perspective

Michelle Brown is one parent who plans to be at that meeting and try to speak to the board.

She has two sons attending Edgewood, including one in special education who was reluctant to go to his former school in Pennsylvania.

"I had to literally force him out of the car," Brown said. "This school has completely turned him around. The teachers are phenomenal. For them to close the school down because they can ship our kids like cattle to somewhere else, why can't they bring other kids here?"

No school district officials were willing to answer that question yet. But here are two clues:

• Edgewood is only 71 percent full. It has 328 students; its capacity is 463.

• Although the school on Forrest Road was rebuilt in 1954 after the 1953 tornado, it is now 59 years old.

Those numbers don't impress Brown or another Edgewood parent, Irene Hedden, whose son is a fourth-grader.

They counter with a different set of statistics:

Despite being a Title I school -- meaning it serves students from predominantly low-income families -- Edgewood met the state standards, called Adequate Yearly Progress, in all seven of the criteria for the most recent report card, 2010-11. Edgewood has made AYP 10 straight years.

The Georgia Department of Education rates Edgewood as a Distinguished School for its performance.

The percentage of Edgewood students meeting or exceeding standards was 76.46.

That's a gain of 1.46 percent, which was equal to or above gains made by 79 percent of the state's elementary schools.

All of which prompted Hedden to wonder aloud, "Why don't they close a failing school and bring them here?"

Administrators won't answer yet, but it's clear they must reduce expenses somewhere.

The Georgia Legislature's budget cuts amount to a $23 million hit on the school district for next school year and more than $144 million since 2003, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.

The school district's annual budget is about $350 million.

"My child's education shouldn't be compared to a dollar bill," Brown said. "They keep putting cost-effective school buildings in north Columbus and spend money to make their school district building look pretty. … To rip them out of here and ship them somewhere because it's cost-effective, that's saying our children don't deserve a quality education."

Brown said she serves on the board of a nonprofit organization, Well-Pleasing Care Services Inc., in Seale, Ala., so she knows how to shape a budget.

"The cuts need to come from the top," she said. "You can tell me all day that (closing Edgewood) is going to save, say, $5 million, but I want to see the breakdown."

That will have to wait until Wednesday's meeting.

Brown and Hedden are frustrated they had to hear about the possible closing of their schools from gossip instead of official communication.

Hedden said she called the school district office, "and they wouldn't give me an answer. They just said it was just a rumor."

"They want people to know nothing," Brown said, "so they can get it done and say, 'Oh, you should have come to the school board meeting,'"

As of Friday afternoon, Brown said, she had 35 names on a petition asking to keep Edgewood open.

Teacher's perspective

Edgewood principal Melana Cassell, who plans to retire this summer, declined to comment for this story. She said Fuller directed her to refer all questions to the communications department.

But one of Edgewood's 50 staff members spoke on the record.

Chad Slater has been a physical education teacher for five years at Edgewood, where his wife attended in the 1990s.

He also teaches at St. Marys Elementary Magnet Academy.

Slater said he hadn't heard about the potential closing of Edgewood until the Ledger-Enquirer contacted him.

"It's kind of stunning, considering it's a Distinguished School," he said.

It's also a fixture in the neighborhood, where many children walk to and from school and some ride their bikes, he said. "You hardly see that at other schools anymore."

Slater called Edgewood "a family atmosphere" and, despite the building's age, it's in relatively good condition, he said.

"To me, it's one of the better elementary schools in Muscogee County," he said, "especially on the south side."

Slater emphasized that some students transferred to Edgewood through hardship waivers granted after the school in their attendance zone failed to make AYP.

"If you have students asking to come here," he said, "our reputation speaks for itself."

Board perspective

Board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 said, "I'm a little embarrassed here," after admitting he didn't know about the forthcoming proposal before the called meeting was announced.

"You know as much about it as I do," he said. "I think we will collectively learn at that time what the proposal is from the administration."

Asked why this proposal needs a called meeting instead of waiting for the May 13 work session and the May 20 regular meeting, Varner said, "That's a good question."

Fuller said the administration is formulating the budget for next fiscal year, which starts July 1, so officials need to know as soon as possible which facilities they must fund.

Plus, "there are several presentations that need to be made. That's why you wouldn't want to do this during a regular board meeting."

Cathy Williams, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative, said that although declaring Wednesday's gathering a called meeting allows the board to vote, she doesn't expect any final decisions to be made then.

"I can't imagine we'll be asked to vote on something we've heard nothing about," she said.

Mark Cantrell of District 6 was the only other board member reached for comment.

"I cannot vote on Wednesday without hearing from the public," he said.

Williams, however, noted that, "I've never been to a community forum and heard parents say, 'Yeah, close my school.' So I'll have an open mind."

This story was edited to correct the correct age of the Edgewood Elementary School building.

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