Muscogee County School Board votes on Edgewood, Marshall closings tonight

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 19, 2013 

Joe Paull jpaull@ledger-enquirer.com The Muscogee County School District administration is proposing to close Marshall Middle School along with Edgewood Elementary School to save money amid state budget cuts.

The Muscogee County School Board is scheduled to vote tonight on interim superintendent John Phillips' $9.5 million package of cuts that include closing Edgewood Elementary and Marshall Middle schools.

About 100 folks gathered in the Marshall cafeteria Tuesday night for the first of two public hearings on the proposal to close the school. Soft piano music played in the background.

"Soothing," Marshall principal Michael Forte said with a smile.

But the intended calm hit some clunky chords as the meeting grew increasingly emotional.

Melvin Blackwell was one of the two Muscogee County School District officials who presented the administration's case for closing Marshall and Edgewood because of state budget cuts. Blackwell, the district's student services chief, preceded Forte as Marshall's principal.

So the district's financial crisis has come to this: The man whose previous responsibility was to build up Marshall now was tasked with explaining why it should be shut down -- and the man who faces his job being cut was doing his best to brighten the mood.

Fast-forward to Wednesday's hearing at Edgewood. For the second straight night, PTA members provided baked goods and drinks -- showing hospitality amid heartbreak -- and about 80 residents found new ways to ask the same questions and make the same points.

And their desperation to keep their school open came down to this: As the meeting went past 2½ hours, a mother, with a straight face, suggested selling candy bars to help raise the $1.2 million school district officials say closing Edgewood would save.

Approval likely

Board members praised the passion and outpouring of support the Edgewood and Marshall families expressed during the public hearings. But without a viable alternative, it looks like the board will approve the recommended cuts.

Over the weekend, the Ledger-Enquirer reached four of the nine board members for comment. Only one, board chairman Rob Varner of District 5, disclosed his decision outright -- a reluctant "yes" -- but nobody else definitively indicated an opposing vote.

At-large representative Cathy Williams, Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3 and Shannon Smallman of District 7 said they still were undecided.

They agreed, however, the administration's alternative option of 13 furlough days is unacceptable.

Williams called this the toughest vote she will cast in six years on the board.

"I can vote to close two Title I Distinguished Schools who have worked so hard to get there, or I can vote to punish the rest of our employee base because of bad decisions the administration has made for the past 10 years," she said, referring to building new schools for growth that didn't happen as projected.

Williams, who chaired the board for two years before Varner took over in January, emphasized that she isn't criticizing the administration -- "I'll take the blame before anybody" -- but she did skewer state officials.

"The governor and the state legislature have put our economic backs against the wall," she said. "We were told the governor was going to restore funding to K-12. Now, we are being bullied into a decision to close schools because they're holding our other 6,000 employees hostage."

Senior objects to the proposal to move most of Marshall's students to Baker Middle School.

"Baker would be saturated with children mostly from the same economic diversity," she said.

Still, she is leaning toward approval.

"As a parent, I really, really understand wanting to keep Marshall and Edgewood afloat," she said, "but business-wise, we've got to make adjustments."

As recently as Thursday, Smallman emailed school district officials questions and alternative suggestions.

"I know we have to close schools; I get that," she said. "But are these the right schools? … I have so much respect for our administration, it's hard to Monday-morning quarterback, but I wish we had looked at this more long-term."

Myles Caggins, the school district's facilities and operations chief, has said the proposed cuts seem rushed because the district got word from the state about its reduced funding April 12.

The crunch from the calendar and coffers and constituents leaves Varner conflicted -- yet clear about his vote.

"The timeline has pushed us against the wall," he said. "So, at least for me, the least of the bad choices is to support the administration.

"Thirteen furlough days doesn't just mean teachers are out, but students are out of school too, and that's an almost intolerable situation."

The school district started the school year with five furlough days scheduled but will end up with having three after eliminating some programs, holding open some vacant positions and having some unexpected retirements.

Sharon Adams, the school district's chief financial officer, said each furlough day saves the district about $1 million but hurts elsewhere.

"Every penny we don't spend in salaries affects the economy of Columbus," she said, adding that 86 percent of the school district's budget is in salaries and employee benefits.

Adams called the financial crisis "a catastrophe for public education" as school districts across the state are making similar decisions.

"We have to do what you do in any household," Adams said. "We have to spend what we earn. You can't keep dipping into savings. We've got to get a handle on this."

Misunderstanding

Perhaps the most important misunderstanding in the public discussion about the proposed school closings is the meaning of the term "prime funding."

The term refers to the way school districts determine how efficiently they are using their state money.

The state allocates funds to school districts based on enrollment. The money goes to the school district, not each school.

The state supposes 450 students equal one elementary school, 624 students equal one middle school and 970 students equal one high school.

So if a school's enrollment is less than the respective threshold, it is considered below prime. But that doesn't mean it receives less money.

And a school wouldn't get more money if it goes from below prime or over prime. For example, Veterans Memorial Middle School's enrollment is only four students less than prime, but adding four more students there wouldn't give it more money.

Again, the funding from the state goes to the district, not the school.

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