The Muscogee County School District no longer should view Columbus through the racially and economically divisive lens of the north-south divide, said Superintendent David Lewis.
Instead, he proposed to the school board during Saturday's retreat that the administration should serve the schools through three zones -- west, central and east -- with each comprising schools from north and south Columbus as well as midtown.
A regional chief would supervise each of those zones and report to the superintendent's cabinet. Some central office staff would be assigned to one of those zones, so the schools would have more direct contact with the administration, which could better serve those schools, Lewis said.
That was among the gobs of proposals Lewis and his administration made during the board's six-hour planning session in the Columbus Marriott.
The school district is "poised for greatness," Lewis told the board. To move toward that greatness, the superintendent, who was hired six months ago, gave the board his 31-page report on his initial assessments and recommendations. Lewis said he developed his plan from 160 pages of notes compiled during his "listening and learning" meetings with school and community leaders.
Lewis declined to provide a copy of the report to the media, saying it is still in draft form. He promised to release the report in advance of a news conference on Wednesday. He had the report emailed to principals after the retreat on Saturday. He is scheduled to discuss it with his cabinet on Monday, administrators on Tuesday and business leaders on Thursday and Friday. He also plans to conduct community forums to allow the general public to share their opinions.
"We have all the elements and ingredients to be not only one of the best districts in Georgia, but one of the most outstanding districts in the nation, and that's just not a bunch of hogwash," Lewis told the board. "I've been extremely impressed by the commitment and dedication of our staff, whether they be school-based principals, teachers or support staff. They care about children. They care about performance, by and large, and they want the best.
"Secondly, we've got talented and committed people at the district level who understand and are committed to the vision I'm trying to convey. They know we can be better than what we currently are, and they are willing to work to help us get there, and I appreciate that tremendously.
"Thirdly, we have amazing public-private partnerships that are second to none. We have an arts community that supports creativity and innovation. That is critical to our country's competitiveness."
He urged the board to be patient.
"Too many school systems put something in place, abandon it, try something else and abandon it," he said. "You've wasted resources, time, energy and you've lost the trust and confidence in the people who are just tired of the next new thing.
"Stay with it. That's what we're going to do. If we put all those things in place, we won't be poised for greatness; we will achieve greatness. But it's going to take everybody with unparalleled commitment to improving our schools, not only the internal stakeholders, but all the external ones. Anybody who cares about our community and our children has got to get involved with this."
Toward that end, Lewis said he hopes to spark a community conversation about public education through book studies. The first will be "Schools Cannot Do It Alone," by Jamie Vollmer.
"This gentleman was an unabashed critic of public education, and this book chronicles his evolution from critic to supporter and why," Lewis said. "That's the kind of commitment we're going to have to have going forward from everyone in the community to truly realize the greatness that I think exists."
Beyond questions for clarification, no board member criticized Lewis' plan during the retreat. Afterward, board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 praised the superintendent for his "due diligence" and "the number of constituents that he was able to meet with. He was able to really get a very good assessment of how the community feels about our education system. He's been able to craft what looks like a very well thought out and designed plan for improvement, both short term and long term."
Varner especially likes the proposal to more closely serve the schools through west, central and east zones.
"It's a terrific idea," he said. "It's got a lot of common sense. These (zone chiefs) would sit on the cabinet and share the thoughts of the schools they represent. The zones would have Title I schools and the top academically performing schools, and you could take elements from those schools that really are knocking it out of the park and share them with those that are struggling."
Varner also sees the zones helping to close the district's north-south gap.
"It's important to do something about that imaginary but real line of Macon Road and the ongoing perception that there's an inequality. By running the lines vertically through the city, it is effectively erasing that north-south line, which is very important for our community."
Creating the three positions of zone chiefs won't cost more money, Lewis said, because he would repurpose staff.
High school scheduling
Looking to save money and improve the graduation rate, Lewis also proposed a change to the high school schedules.
Switching from the eight-period 4x4 block or A-B-day schedule to a seven-period schedule with more yearlong classes, officials said, would:
Cut $4 million-$4.5 million in expenses by reducing the high school staff by about 15 percent. Those positions would be reduced through attrition and reassignment, not layoffs, officials said. The savings are critical because chief financial officer Sharon Adams projects the district's expenditures to rise nearly $10 million next fiscal year to cover teacher retirement, salary step and health insurance increases alone.
Add a mini-period called Increased Learning Time, when students could receive remediation, enrichment or make-up work during the regular day instead of only before or after school.
The district's high school principals and their leadership teams were part of developing this proposal, Lewis said, but assistant superintendent Rebecca Braaten cautioned, "We want to elicit more feedback. This is not finalized." Braaten also noted only 35 percent of the state's school districts still are on an eight-period 4x4 block or A-B-day schedule and the state funds only six periods.
Interim Superintendent John Phillips was criticized last year for proposing to close Edgewood Elementary and Marshall Middle late in the budget cycle, without enough time for public discussion, although the administration said it was constrained by a late revenue cut from the state.
So after Saturday's retreat, Lewis was asked whether he will recommend closing more schools. He said more school closings probably will be necessary in future years but he doesn't plan to recommend that this year. Cusseta Road and Muscogee elementary schools already have been scheduled to close at the end of this school year and merge into the new school being constructed, Dorothy Height Elementary.