Muscogee County School Board questions cutting Academic Success Center

Deferring and eliminating projects to build a $30 million arts academy was the main topic during the Muscogee County School Board's work session Tuesday night.

And the possible closure of an alternative school serving struggling students drew the most questions from board members.

The Academic Success Center will be closed if the board approves interim superintendent John Phillips Jr.'s proposal to make up a shortfall expected to be as much as $40 million in the $223,155,784 list voters approved to fund in 2009 with a 1 percent sales tax.

The proposal would help preserve the arts academy project, Phillips said. He has proposed building the facility for 500 students in grades sixth-12th on the school district's property behind the Columbus Public Library and the city's service center and natatorium under construction. The former Columbus Square Mall site is also home of the school district's main office, on Macon Road in midtown.

Academic Success moved to the Daniel Center on Manchester Expressway three years ago, when the fire marshal declared its former home, the 106-year-old building on 29th Street, not up to code. That building can't be torn down because it is on the National Historic Register as the former home of the nation's first coed vocational high school, the ancestor of Jordan High School. The 29th Street property has two exterior buildings: the Academic Success Center's construction shop and the Sara Spano Clothing Bank.

The Daniel Center also houses the alternative school for middle grades students with discipline problems. The same program for high school students, at the Rose Hill Center on 21st Street, would be consolidated into Daniel if the Academic Success Center is closed.

"We would never send these students back to their home schools and just say swim or sink," Phillips told the board. "We will have transition plans in place."

Board member Naomi Buckner asked how those students would be served.

Keith Seifert, the district's director of secondary education, outlined the various credit recovery programs at the high schools and middle schools.

"Will we be sending 16-year-olds back to middle school?" Buckner asked.

Seifer said the goal would be to make sure the 48 eighth-graders at Academic Success now would have enough credits to go to high school next school year. The center wouldn't close until then.

Administrators also assured board members transportation will continue to be provided for these students at credit recovery programs back at their regular schools.

Board member Norene Marvets questioned whether the board legally could alter the projects list after citizens voted on it. Phillips assured her the board's attorney said it is OK.

Marvets also said the school district wouldn't be a "very good neighbor" if it abandoned the 29th Street building. Phillips said the building should be sold or leased for another purpose.

Board member John Wells expressed concern about the estimated price of the arts academy doubling in the past year. Phillips explained that the $15 million figure in the previous superintendent's plan was expected to be matched by an additional $15 million raised through local donations.

"I think that's fantasy," Phillips said.

"I don't think we should give up on that," Wells responded, adding that the board should ask a prominent person in the community to lead a fundraising effort.

Phillips agreed and said, "There are people in the community who really love the arts and have the means and influence to help us do good things."

The school board is expected to vote on the proposal at Monday's regular board meeting at 6 p.m.

Personnel moves

Terry Baker, the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, is being recommended to become the district's director of elementary education. He would replace the retiring Karon Greyer.

Phillips announced he appointed Midland Middle School principal Richard Green as the principal of the district's new middle school, named after the late Judge Aaron Cohn, to be opened next school year.

As an administrative transfer, Phillips said, the move doesn't need board approval. The school's attendance zone is expected to comprise students assigned to Midland, Blackmon and Fort middle schools. That zone will be finalized later, after board consideration and public forums in February or March, Phillips said.