The day after the Muscogee County School District proposed closing two schools to help make up for state budget cuts, that was the top topic of discussion as more than 70 residents attended the school board's inaugural Community VOICE forum Tuesday night at Downtown Elementary Magnet Academy.
Board members and district officials delivered on their promise to Value Opinions, Involvement and Concerns in Education, and many of the residents who stepped to the microphones got more than their 3 minutes of allotted time. In fact, board chairman Rob Varner of District 5 extended the scheduled 90-minute session another 30 minutes to hear all the folks who wanted to speak.
And the proposed closing of Edgewood Elementary and Marshall Middle was the main focus.
Isaac Brown, head of a concerned citizens group, questioned why money always seems available to build jails and prisons and hire more police. "But when it comes down to finding the money to do something for education, it's a different subject?"
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Charles Lawhon, who said he has served on the boards of the Georgia and national PTAs, urged officials to consider other options, such as selling unused facilities.
MCSD operations chief Myles Caggins said that's exactly what the district is doing. Officials are negotiating with a poetntial buyer for the vacant 29th Street building, he said.
Board member Mark Cantrell of District 6 said he understands the concern. He learned of the proposal to close Edgewood through the news and that Marshall is targeted when everyone else heard it at Monday's meeting.
Cantrell said was "stunned, shocked, saddened. It was like somebody dropped a bomb." But with a $40 million deficit, he said, he understands schools might have to be closed. He went to Morningside Elementary, which was closed in 1980, "but we survived; we went on. We're not ever the enemy. We thank you for letting us know what's in your heart."
Alton Russell challenged interim superintendent John Phillips' vow to eliminate furlough days while teachers might be laid off.
"I think if I'm a teacher," he said, "I'd rather have furlough days than not have a job."
Russell also challenged the rationale to pay for board members to attend a national conference in San Diego amid budget cuts. He said a Georgia Department of Education representative told him school board members don't get trainig credit for out-of-state conferences.
Phillips said the board's travel budget was cut from $30,000 to $18,000 several years ago. Varner defended the expense by saying it is "probably a drop in the bucket" compared to the district's budget of more than $270 million.
"It's the responsibility of this board to hear the best and brightest minds talk about public education," Varner said.
A woman asked, "Why are you making a decision to close schools and fire teachers when we have a temporary employee in a superintendent here?"
Varner noted Phillips previously was the full-time superintendent (January 2003 to July 2008), so he is familiar with the district. Varner added that it would be "irresponsible to allow the grass grow without any action" while waiting for a superintendent to be hired.
Cathy Williams, the nine-member board's lone county-wide representative, lauded Phillips for his expertise, particularly in school finance, allowing the board to take its time to find the right superintendent to lead the district. It's been 14 months since former superintendnet Susan Andrews announced her retirement.
The Rev. Richard Jessie, immediate past president of the Marshall PTA, invited everyone to Marshall's 55th anniversary celebration at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
"We're expecting Marshall to continue on," he said.
He asked the community to fast and pray.
"We took the easy way out in closing the schools," Jessie said. "Marshall is undoubtedly ground zero as far as poverty in our community school-wise. It's the oldest middle school, a proud heritage, a wonderful history, and we want you to consider some other alternatives."PUBLIC HEARINGS
As required by state law before voting on closing a public school, the Muscogee County School District has scheduled two public hearings for the proposed closing of Edgewood Elementary School and Marshall Middle School.
The hearings for both schools will be in their buildings on the same dates and at the same times:
Edgewood cafeteria, 3835 Forrest Road, May 14 and May 15, 6 p.m.
Marshall auditorium, 1830 Shepherd Drive, May 14 and 15, 6 p.m.
For more information, contact MCSD communications director Valerie Fuller at email@example.com or 706-748-2034.