Community Meeting Live Blog: SRT 4 NE March 13, 2012

Welcome to our live blog of superintendent Erroll Davis’ community meeting with SRT 4 NE cluster of schools at North Atlanta High School, March 13, 2012.

Refresh your browser often to keep up with our live posts from tonight’s meeting.

6:36pm – Meeting is beginning, Steve Smith, Associate Superintendent is introducing and moderating tonight.  Sets ground rules for the meeting. Encourages the crowd to ask questions and refrain from making statements.  Comment cards are available for anyone who wants to leave a comment without speaking tonight.

Note: Drastically smaller crowd than previous meetings in this SRT during the demographic study.  Large signs in audience however state that parents want a 6th grade academy at Sutton and 2 middle schools.

6:43:  Erroll Davis:  We’ve been at this for a while, approaching the 10,000 mark in comments at this point, which is really sort of neat when you think about the number of parents we have compared to the comments – shows positive engagement.  Best schools are those with intense parent engagement.  Parents that are relentless make our schools, us and our principals better.  One of the reasons we went to a cluster concept, like the one here, is to intensify that allegiance to a series of schools in a cluster that we don’t have in a lot of places in the district that we have here.

Comments included a gym at Brandon, capacity issues at Garden Hills, the ongoing debate over academies over middle schools.  We’ve tried to incorporate your feedback and I hope you see that we are listening.  I took great pains when I came out with my first set that it is preliminary and there can be changes based on input I receive.  I probably in this sector that the final product will pretty much resemble what you see so far, but as I learn more and people make suggestions that I didn’t think of they will be appropriately considered.

We all want the same thing.  I know that you passionately want the best possible education for your child.  Often my challenge is that I want that for 47,000 students, not just one.  So I have to consider and balance things you do not.  I appreciate and understand your intensity, but my understanding doesn’t mean I have to always agree.

6:48:  This cluster remained mostly in tact because you had clean feeder patters –> Only a few elementary schools that move to one middle and one high school.  That is not the case elsewhere in the district.  It makes it difficult for parents to bond and move thru the system when you have that type of feeder pattern.  In tact clusters will remedy that for everyone.  We will move forward with expansion plans and address the most urgent and pressing needs first.  We have not recommended the closure of every school that is under capacity nor have we recommended to build at every school that is over capacity.  Our resources are limited and we will prioritize.

6:51:  Bolton – overcrowding not an issue.  Enrollment is 511 with capacity of 792 as we look out to 2021-22 the enrollment will peak in 2018 at 784 at 99% capacity.  For Brandon and Garden Hills we know that overcrowding is a problem but not as much as E. Rivers.  Brandon has 1188 students, capacity 1320 and peak will be 98% in 2016.  Capacity is based on a 1:22 ratio.  Garden Hills 693 with capacity of 682, already over capacity.  By 2018 it will be 120% over planning capacity with 845 students.  Chasing students with brick and mortar is a difficult and expensive task.  At times we do monitoring when you would like us to do instant building.  Sometimes we can do minor tweaks on the edges of school zones as well as portables for short term.  For Brandon and Garden Hills we will keep a close watch.

6:56  Jackson – No plans for expansion.  Overcrowding not an issue. 944 students with 1188 capacity. Projections show never over 81% capacity.  E Rivers is a tough issue.  We are moving forward with rebuilding. Students will be relocated to existing Sutton site for 18 months.  They are 107 over planning capacity.  We are expecting peak enrollment to occur in 2019.  Smith – No plans for expansion. No overcrowding.  1094 at 2 locations with 1320 capacity.  Will tighten up from a planning perspective, but not higher than 97% in 2017.  Sutton is substantially over capacity.  Sutton will move to the North Atlanta facility in fall of 2013.  Over 1300 hundred students in a school of over 800.  NAHS has a planning capacity that can hold them.  Middle school will exceed capacity in 2014-2015 year.  I have recommended that old site be used as a 6th grade academy.  I’ve heard the complaints about this idea.  That is going to happen 2-3 years from now.

NAHS will transition to new home in fall of 2013.  1301 current enrollment, current capacity is 1500.  It will increase to over 2400 by year 2022 and new building has capacity of 24oo.  You will often hear people ask why are spending more here.  The post per student and cost per square foot is competitive with all the other high schools we have recently built.  If you normalize it, the cost per student and square foot will actually be at the bottom after you take out the cost of the land.  In other areas we already owned the land.  This building will be expensive because it will be big.  But it is not more expensive than other buildings we have built.

7:02:  In addition to expansions here, Bunche, Sylvan Hills, Young, Lin, possibly SPARK and our goal is to meet the needs of our communities and we tried to put together a proposal that did that in the most reasonable manner possible that serves children well.

7:05  Q&A will now begin

Q:  Cynthia Briscoe Brown – How can we support you and the system as a whole as we complete and implement this process?  We want to be helpers and a force for positive change.

A:  Very nice but tough question.  Since I’ve taken this position, a lot of people have asked to help me. (laughter).  I’ve wrestled with how to avail myself of that.  People are doing what they need to do.  Object when they don’t like something and tell us when you do.  We learn a lot from good substantive comments.  I suggest that people keep commenting.  In terms of this process, I don’t know that there is anything that I ask of you other than to comment vigorously.

Q:  What is the process for SPLOST Funds?

A:  One of thing I’m trying to do is to figure out whether I can monetize in advance the entire income stream so that we don’t have to wait till year 2 or 3.  That is a complex legal and financial problem.  I’d like to get as many projects as possible.  What happened last time is that all the money didn’t appear over the SPLOST period.  We should be able to monetize at least 80% and have the money to go on all projects to minimize concerns about priority.

Q:  When will we go back to smaller classrooms?

A:  We have been living quite frankly on savings and spending down our savings.  Challenge with 2013 budget is balancing it with only minimally dipping into reserves.  This years budget had a draw down of 37M and we got that down to under 20M and I’m optimistic that I can get it lower.  The revenue picture just doesn’t look good.  Until we figure out how do better, I’m hesitant about making recommendations about lowering class size.

Q:  Is it possible to reduce the Rivers relocation time to 12 months instead of 18?

A:  Like any good engineer I will say its possible, but is it probable.  I don’t think this is a leisurely pace but we are open to moving children back into their building mid-year.  You are asking to cut 1/3 of the project time.  It’s not a matter of waiting any period of time that causes us to take 18 months.  The build cycle is programmed for 18 months if we start right away.  I’m not optimistic however that it can be any shorter.

Q:  Is there an option for 2 middle schools?

A:  I’ve heard all of the arguments for and against.  This is a recommendation I’ve made and the board will make the decision. But again, we had some discussion at the Board meeting this week about the pros and cons of 6th grade academies and the board is comfortable with that.  They realize the down sides and they see the positive of the transition into middle.  I don’t want to hold out a lot of false hope.  Unless I get some compelling new information, I probably will not switch from recommending a 6th grade academy to recommending 2 middle schools. (big applause)

Note:  There are many parents here tonight in support of 2 middle schools

Q:  What about overcrowding?

A:  Overcrowding is not an issue.  Under utilization is actually the concern.

Q:  Has the district done any site studies since January for E. Rivers?

A: I really don’t know but give us your name and contact and we will get you that information.

Q:  A one year school will have minimal parental engagement.  Do you have information from other schools that have used this model, lessons learned?

A:  On lessons learned, the answer is no.

Q:  Is there research on two transitions.

A:  In many instances I believe children are more resilient than parents.  If we find that there is a problem with engagement or ownership we will revisit the decision.  Decisions are not cast in concrete.  The challenge is that your child only gets to do a grade once and its one of the things I’ve had to learn coming from a university environment where you do it in 4 to 6 years. The urgency wasn’t higher there, but it is here.  We don’t intend to do any harm.  We think this is a path that will have benefits but could have down sides.  We’ve had robust discussions this week about K-8.  None of these decisions are static.

Q:  Why not a 9th grade academy instead of 6th grade academy?

A:  After the demographers put out their 4 proposals in the beginning, the feedback at that time there was not a lot of support for a 9th grade academy so that appeared on my principle list.  It appearing there is because it was informed by your clusters feedback.

Q:  Garden Hills PTA President – Given what you’ve said about GH, being monitored still concerns me.  Any concrete ideas of what you are thinking?

A:  I’ve asked our facilities folks to plan for making a quick response.  Quick response means portables.  We cannot build on that site without building because the site would be used by Rivers.  We have to monitor the enrollment jumps.  Higher than expected = moving quickly.  I’ve asked them today to make sure they have permits, portables, etc so that we can move quickly.  Our engineers belive that portables are doable.  I want them to go thru pre-permitting to ensure this is possible.

Q:  Are there any political or ethical concerns/pressures of us opening a new school here while others are being closed in other parts of the city?

A:  I believe what has made this cluster successful is the parental engagement.  When people talk about equity, I tell them I’m giving you the exact same structure that has been shown to be successful elsewhere and its up to you to own these schools.  We are spending a lot of money all around the city and I’m not bashful or apologetic about it.  We will build where there is a need.  I would not say I’m not subject to political pressure but  more so insensitive.  I’m not making political compromises, I assure you.

When we plan for the arts, we will plan for the number of students that are there.  When you can only have one play it is clear that the competition is more fierce.  I don’t know whether they are capable in the 6th grade academy of providing every opportunity that they can at a traditional school, but there are pros with transitioning and anti-bullying. Competent people in place = good solutions.  As the issues surface we will plan.

Q:  Can we assume that no redistricting will occur between and our cluster and Grady? Will there be changes within our cluster?

A:  Yes there may be some changes within this cluster.  No changes are being contemplated outside the cluster.

Q:  How did you come to your proposal regarding 6th grade academy?

A:  I would say that either of these ideas would have worked, but I focused on the transition.  I have to pick one, so I picked one.

Q:  There are many studies that say that multiple transitions are detrimental for children.  Are you aware of those?

A:  Studies in academia are a wonderful thing.  When I establish a position and ask for support, I can always find something to support it.  There is so much evidence on all sides.  I consult with our team and they know what studies are out there and I’m sure we can find you a study that shows this is the way to go.  I remain unpersuaded by these types of studies.  There are too many and too much conflict.  I appreciate your intensity for your children, but I needed to pick one model and I picked one.

Q:  Can we have a list of information about how you got to this point?

A:  Yes, of course.  But I don’t make the final decision.

Q:  Yes, but you made the proposal

Davis states that he’s had many conversations with board members and he will not assume that they will approve his proposal.

Q:  When will you decide about the 6th grade academy?

A:  There is no need for a 6th grade academy until the capacity of the current NAHS site exceeds.  That will not happen for 2-3 years.  We have to look at what the interceding years growth is.  If its higher than normal, decision comes quicker, lower than normal, it will come lower.  I appreciate that it impacts your decision, but the Boards decision will impact your decision.  The Board can say we don’t want to make this decision…I can not speak for what the Board is going to do.  I can only say I’ve made a recommendation.  They don’t have to close a school, they don’t have to open a school.

Parent asks about the continuing evolving of Davis’ plan.  Davis says that the “tweaking” of boundaries within the cluster may happen before he submits his final recommendation.  March 26 will be the last day for feedback, the superintendent will then PLAN to post the next proposal on March 30.  This will be prior to spring break.  The public can continue to comment at that time, and final recommendation will be made to the board April 9.  “Comment on what will come out on the 30th because I have scheduled work on Saturday, Sunday and Monday before the next board meeting.”  I hope people realize we are listening and changing.  I fully expect there will be some changes but I don’t know what they are.

Q:  Sutton PTA Co-Presidents – What kind of support will APS provide as we transition to the new campus

A:  That is something the team will need to plan/answer but we have a number of years to plan.  We have a reasonably good planning forward capability.  You would be interested to see the type of planning that takes place on Day One of the school’s opening.  There are over 9,000 tasks that must take place for Day One of schools opening.  I am confident that we have the capacity to do what is needed with our present capabilities.

Q:  How do you plan to accommodate E. Rivers when planning is so far away? Do you have any creative solutions?

A:  I ‘d like to say something beyond no.  In terms of capacity, I want to talk about classroom capacity.  You are over on a 1:22 basis but not on the 1:23 K 1:25 for 1-3 and up.  You mentioned an issue that people don’t appreciate and that is that it’s not so much classroom capacity but infrastructure.  We see this where parents love the school and want more children added to the school.  The real challenge is not the portables but the infrastructure that forces us to start lunch at 10am.  We may be able to solve the classroom issue more easily than the infrastructure issue.  We are wrestling with creative facilities. There are actually other facilities with even more pressing issues regarding infrastructure, you may not believe it.  As we look at Rivers we are gritting our teeth and trying to get thru the year.

Q:  Can you table your decision?

A:  The Board members are aware that they can table anything I put forth.  I can’t represent what their judgement will be. They may want to move forward and put the issue behind them, or table it.  Given where I am in my tenure, I felt I should make a recommendation.

Q:  How much input has been put into a 6th grade academy as far as transportation is concerned?

A:  We constantly test for transportation viability.  We ask “can it be done” and from a transportation perspective I’ve been told this can be done.  Within transportation we are trying to do some new things such as staging buses at different locations throughout the city to make our routing more efficient.  Have we done traffic studies? No.

Q:  Has anyone visited the Marietta 6th grade academy?  The have a successful school but they admit not to having the PTA support that we have.

A:  No, I haven’t visited but I have read the material on that.  I’m glad to see something is working close by and in a number of years we will have a live model in our presence that we can study.

Note:  We have 20 more minutes left and no one is at the microphones.  Davis is opening things up to comments now instead of questions.

Comment:  Sutton parent says the desire to form 2 middle schools comes from a very small group of parents.  Sutton parents, he says, they did a survey, 900 responses, overwhelmingly in support of a 6th grade academy and one middle school. (big applause)

Davis: I don’t want to start a food fight here.  I can put the survey conversation to rest and it had no impact on our decision.  We didn’t use it to inform our decision.

End of Live Blog

One thought on “Community Meeting Live Blog: SRT 4 NE March 13, 2012

Add yours

  1. Always appreciate the great job you do, APSUPDATE!

    When Supt. Davis answered:
    ————————————————————————————–
    Q: What is the process for SPLOST Funds?
    A: One of thing I’m trying to do is to figure out whether I can monetize in advance the entire income stream so that we don’t have to wait till year 2 or 3. That is a complex legal and financial problem.
    ————————————————————————————–

    What does “monetize” signify? He mentions trying to “monetize” 80% of SPLOST IV, which alone is over $500 million dollars. He must be referring to floating municipal bonds to capture the money on the front end, right?

    If so, what is the financial impact of of those bonds? There are monies needed to issue them and a lot more to pay off the interest. Is there an estimate for these ‘incidental’ costs? Those costs will have to be paid out of the general fund.

    Do the benefits out-way these costs?

    Is it fair to ask communities where many schools are closing to help pay (through the city-wide general fund paid by all tax-payers) for new construction and renovations?

    Yes, the last two questions above are rhetorical, yet points for healthy discussion and worthy of consideration, IMO. Thanks again!

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