DeKalb officials delay closing schools to get more input
By Kristina Torres
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:10 p.m. Friday, November 6, 2009
Plans to close more schools in DeKalb County have been put on hold for a year, as system officials committed Friday to a more open and inclusive decision-making process.
The change gives school officials more time to collect data about student enrollment and confirm or update school building capacities. Over the next two months, they will also create a "planning task force" of community members to help them weigh their options. The 20-member task force is expected to start work in January and end in October. The new time line tentatively puts a re-crafted plan before school board members for action in December 2010.
"What we're trying to do is get more buy-in on the problem before we come up with a solution," said Dan Drake, who the system hired in September to be its planning and forecasting director -- the first DeKalb has had.
Robert Moseley, the system's deputy chief superintendent for school operations, credited Drake for suggesting that the system step back and reexamine its plans.
Officials previously said they would announce a countywide school closure and redistricting plan this month. Work on that plan started over the summer but was partially dependent on a 2006 demographic study. The study, done by an outside consultant, projected enrollment through 2016 and was completed before a previous round of school closures. But due to its timing, it didn't account for the recession and the housing bubble burst. Still, Moseley said officials found the experience so useful that it made them prioritize the hiring of an in-house expert.
That officials are considering closing schools at all stems from their costs at a time when the state continues to cut its financial support and local taxpayers are in no mood to raise their own. DeKalb, with about 98,000 students, supports 153 campuses -- more than Georgia's largest system, Gwinnett, with nearly 160,000 students.
Additionally, a number of DeKalb schools are under-enrolled. DeKalb subsidizes their cost because they do not serve enough students to qualify for full state funding -- such as the 450 students needed for the state to cover an elementary school's full staffing and operations costs.
Last summer, DeKalb closed five elementary schools for that reason. Officials also redrew attendance lines for 18 other schools and moved several school choice programs, including the high-profile Kittredge Magnet School for High Achievers, to different campuses -- for a savings of $4 million annually.
At the time, officials targeted some of the most severely under-enrolled schools, with 300 or fewer students.
The small schools were, in effect, low-hanging fruit. Now officials will probably look higher. Eleven elementary schools currently enroll fewer than 400 students. However, there is no indication so far of which schools are most in danger; a school may serve fewer students but be considered well-used given its space, such as housing a special-needs program.
Drake, a certified planner with a master's degree in civil engineering, came to DeKalb after working as the public works director in Milton. He expects the task force to propose a preferred scenario about school closures, as well as attendance line changes to balance out enrollment, by next summer. That draft will be presented to the public before a final plan is made. Once approved by the board, schools would close in August 2011.
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