Superintendent answers public's questions about initial plan

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 27, 2014 

MARK RICE/ Muscogee County School District superintendent David Lewis, standing at right, presents his initial assessment and recommendations during Thursday night's public forum in the Muscogee County Public Education Center. He was hired in July from Polk County, Fla.

After presenting his plan to the school board, business and community leaders and then media representatives this past month, it was the public's turn.

Columbus residents heard during a forum Thursday night Muscogee County School District Superintendent David Lewis summarize his 32-page report on his initial assessment and recommendations.

It was the first of two sessions Lewis will conduct. The final one will be Tuesday at 6 p.m., also in the Muscogee County Public Education Center.

Following his hour-long presentation, Lewis answered questions from the audience of about 60 residents. Here are the highlights:

Where do attendance zones fit into the mix of deciding which schools to close?

"It's all connected, frankly. There are a lot of things we look at. We look at the smallest schools, obviously, and their growth projections. A school might be small now but, as it was mentioned, Aaron Cohn is a small school when it was opened in terms of capacity, but it's growing over time and will fill to capacity based on projections. We have to look at the age of the building. If it was built in 1941, I can tell you it's not as easy as adding on an addition. Once you pull off the roof, you find asbestos, and one thing leads to the next, and all of a sudden you've got a real mess on your hands. We have to look and see where we can consolidate, where it makes sense. Maybe we have a very small elementary school and another small elementary school right next to it -- kind of like at Dorothy Height: close two older ones and build one nice one on a bigger scale, so it's more efficient. … Flat-out closing, there may be some schools that are so small or so old that we just can't make them work anymore and it's costing more to keep them open than it would be to just bus them over to another school that has more capacity."

In the interim, how do we look at load balancing classrooms at the schools that exist?

"We're going to look at that. … All those things have implications for busing. … Then you weigh that with the cost of busing that many kids over there, you kind of shot yourself in the foot, or at best it's a wash. So there's no one definitive answer without naming specific schools. But as we open new schools, as we consolidate schools or close schools, that obviously has implications for balance and rezoning. That's why people have got to be very open to it. That's the reason why I want these regions (dividing the district into equal west, central and east regions) to work so it doesn't matter where you are because you're going to get a quality education and there's no push-back, saying, 'Well, I don't want my child to go to that school." … We've got to get them all performing at a high level. I know that's aspirational, but we have to work toward that, and we have to be efficient in doing it."

Are closing or consolidating based on these current zones?

"Yes, they are. Let me just share with you, the last time we looked at our capacity, we had several thousand student stations available in our district. In other words, the state says based on the size of this school you can put X-number of students in this school. Well, that may be true, but if I'm in one end of the zone or one end of the district, there might not be a place to pull people without pulling them down from a place that makes them bus further down. So that's why it's not as easy. … Plus, you have to look at not overburdening one school with a predominantly socioeconomic challenge. That's one of the things we've got to start addressing. … We're going to have to redraw lines as we close schools and put kids where we need them to fill to capacity and be more efficient."

Where can parents go to keep up with their child's education?

"Two things I'll mention. One is the early-warning system I was talking about (parents will be alerted electronically when their child needs academic help), and the next generation of that is to plug in little vignettes or tutorials that can help. They work step-by-step so parents and kids individually or together can (see) how they work the problem. … The other thing is those parent advocacy centers I was mentioning. Eventually, if you have enough people willing to help support it, people can come to those storefronts or churches and get that help, that additional assistance for parents to understand how to help their children."

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