In a called meeting Monday night, the Muscogee County School Board unanimously voted to approve superintendent David Lewis’ recommendation to move a special-education program into J.D. Davis Elementary School to comply with the state’s order to immediately move students from the Woodall Center because it was declared unsafe and unhealthy.
But the board wasn’t unanimous on what to discuss.
Woodall is one of 24 facilities in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support, which serves students with severe emotional or behavioral disorders. Woodall also is one of nine GNETS facilities the state has determined to be unfit for those programs.
After listening to the administration’s presentation about why Davis Elementary was chosen to house the approximately 40 students in the Woodall program, District 8 representative Frank Myers said, “We are being forced out of a building that we did not maintain properly. … We have just absolutely treated like crap the most vulnerable citizens that we serve.
There needs to be some soul searching, and there needs to be some accountability. … You don’t get a building in the horrible condition that it’s in in two or three months. This took years of neglect, and the buck needs to stop somewhere.”
Varner and vice chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 apologized to the Woodall administrators, saying Myers’ comments aren’t the consensus of the board.
District 2 representative John Thomas prefaced that his criticism isn’t targeted toward the Woodall staff, but that this case is an example of why the district needs the efficiency audit that he has called for since he was elected two years ago, he said.
Thomas asked, “How did we get to this point, whose job was it to maintain this building, and at whose feet does this responsibility lie?”
La Christa McQueen, who has been Woodall’s director for three years, said the district and community partners have responded well to her maintenance requests. David Goldberg, the district’s chief of operations since February 2015, said his office is responsible, but “these are pre-existing conditions that have had Band-Aid solutions.”
Georgia Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza told the Ledger-Enquirer on Friday that Woodall’s final inspection report wasn’t available, but a July 15, 2015, letter from the U.S. Justice Department to Gov. Nathan Deal and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens cites Woodall as an example of unacceptable conditions in GNETS facilities.
“We observed that the window air conditioners work only sporadically, and the interior of the building was dirty,” wrote Vanita Gupta, principal U.S. deputy assistant attorney general.
Lewis, whom the board hired three years ago from Polk County, Fla., where he was an associate superintendent, noted the deficiencies found at Woodall also include conditions that aren’t related to maintenance, such as no cafeteria or gymnasium.
Melvin Blackwell, the district’s chief of student services, said the administration considered moving the Woodall program to the Edgewood Center three years ago. Edgewood houses students who are dismissed from school because of discipline problems. The concern of mixing those students on the same campus nixed the idea, Blackwell said.
Goldberg said the administration selected Davis Elementary to house the Woodall program because it is the district’s school that best fits the criteria: eight classrooms for a dedicated wing without moving regular-education teachers, sufficient parking, bus access, playground, restrooms, ability to fence off an area, and compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which Woodall isn’t.
Mary Lewis, not related to the superintendent, has been the district’s director of special education for three years.
“I get that there are some issues and there are some questions, and I’d love to be able to answer them, but please just know La Christa and I are here about the kids,” she said. “We just want all of our kids to get the very best we can do.”
Two parents told the board the Woodall staff certainly does that.
Lisa Jenkins, who had sued the school district after her autistic son was strapped to a chair, said she has seen her son progress to being able to sit in a desk and do schoolwork.
“It’s hard being a teacher,” Jenkins said. “It’s hard being a parent of these children, but we can do it as one. We can do it together. All we’ve got to do is put the fear down and put your hands up and pray about it.”
Woodall is the GNETS program for students in Muscogee, Harris, Chattahoochee, Clay, Quitman, Randolph, Stewart and Talbot counties and Fort Benning.
Through tears, Emily Morse of Chattahoochee County told the board that Woodall “performs miracles” every school day. “This staff saved my son,” she said, “and they’re treated the worst. … They say it takes a village. It takes more than that, and this is my village.”
After the vote, Davis teacher Christie Griffin complained the board didn’t allow the public a chance to speak about the recommendation before the decision was made. Myers made the motion to allow Griffin to speak.
Griffin asked why the former Marshall Middle School, the vacant facility next to Davis Elementary, won’t house the Woodall program. Goldberg explained that Marshall no longer is on the state’s approved list of school buildings.
Griffin also expressed concern about the safety of the Davis students. Superintendent Lewis assured her the Woodall students would be in separate parts of the building.
Davis principal Carla Henry said she will ensure the school “is a place where all students are important and all students are able to learn.”
The goal of the Woodall program is for the students to learn enough coping skills to mainstream into a special-education program back at a regular school or even into a traditional classroom, McQueen said. Two students achieved that goal last school year, she said. But others are far from that goal.
“Some kids tried to commit suicide at the age of 6,” McQueen said, “so you can’t put them in an open facility.”