Karl Douglass: School quality -- and quantity

May 4, 2013 

"Why are we talking about closing schools?" That's the question I have been hearing all week. Parents at Edgewood Elementary have been the most vocal. As they have accurately pointed out, Edgewood has achieved AYP repeatedly. So, it is easy to wonder why a conversation about closing schools in Muscogee County seems centered on a school with a history of performing well.

The fact of the matter is that the conversation has nothing to do with school performance. Rather, it has to do with paying for our school operations.

Regardless of how well or how poorly a school performs, the student population is a major factor in whether a school receives state funding. The official code of Georgia sets the base school size for elementary schools at 450 students. The base school size for middle schools is set at 624 students and the base school size for high schools is 970 students.

Edgewood Elementary has 328 students.

However, the reason the school district is talking about the possibility of closing multiple schools instead of just talking about closing Edgewood is because several other schools in Columbus are below the base school size as well. Among them, Allen, Cusseta Road, J.D. Davis, Dawson, Double Churches Elementary, Forest Road, Fox, River Road, South Columbus, Baker, Double Churches Middle, Eddy, Fort, Marshall, Rothschild, Jordan, Kendrick and Spencer, according to the latest numbers available on the Georgia Department of Education website.

Parents have complained loudly about school overcrowding in our district that has resulted in students studying in portable classrooms and has been the basis for several successful SPLOST campaigns for money to build new classrooms. Less attention has been paid to the schools that have become underpopulated as a result of families making the choice to move to new subdivisions in North Columbus and Midland.

In the early 1990s, our community decided that our children should attend neighborhood schools. In 2013, our community has to figure out what to do with school facilities in neighborhoods where there are far fewer children than there were 20 years ago.

Closing and consolidating schools is certainly AN answer, though it may not be THE answer. One alternative, which would surely generate a tidal wave of political controversy, would be to rezone the district so that some students would be moved from schools that are currently overcrowded to others that have classrooms available. Another alternative would be to drop all attendance zones, make every school a choice school that has to compete for students and let the market decide which schools are most viable.

The bottom line is that the issue must be addressed and it must be addressed soon. There is no evidence that pressures on state school funding will let up soon, nor is there evidence that local citizens are prepared to support an increase in property taxes to support the status quo. Regardless where you fall on the issue, the time is now for all of us to work together to find a solution that works best for our students.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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