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School redistricting: Missed opportunities

Bonnie Willis's picture

This past week I was so encouraged to see hundreds of fellow Fayette County citizens attending the first public hearing at Fayette County High School regarding how our schools might be redistricted given two school closure proposals.

While I do appreciate Superintendent Jeff Bearden’s approach to get parents involved in the process, there were several missed opportunities in how the meeting was conducted, and failed to engage attendees in the most fundamental aspects of why these meetings are being held in the first place — To address the impending deficit of $15-$20 million facing our school system.

Initially, all of us gathered in the high school’s cafeteria for a brief presentation regarding the financial challenges facing our school system.

However, this presentation was the first missed opportunity, because Dr. Bearden could have educated citizens by providing greater context for our anticipated deficit.

Currently, our school system has an annual budget of approximately $168 million which serves 30 elementary, middle, high schools and administrative offices. We were not informed of what percentage of our budget is covered by local property taxes and what is contributed from the state, nor were we given our anticipated budget for 2014 that would account for the anticipated $15-20 million deficit.

As it stands, all we know is that the anticipated deficit would account for 10-12 percent of our current budget.

Another missed opportunity was not providing specific information regarding the two school closure options other than the names of the possible schools and a blanket statement that a closure would save the county $800,000 per school.

We were told two schools could be consolidated and one school could be fully opened, but consolidating and opening schools also have financial considerations which were not given.

Additionally, we were not given the annual costs and state revenue generated by the proposed closed schools, which all varied in type, size, and educational services provided.

Based only on the closure savings, closing three good schools would only save us $2.4 million, which is only 12-16 percent of what we need.

Given that school closures have been a part of our public discourse for well over a year (and dating back further if you consider the closing of East Fayette Elementary), I expected the administrative team to have used this large forum to more fully educate citizens on this issue in order to garner more constructive feedback.

A final missed opportunity occurred when we were sent to breakout rooms to gather our input.

Room facilitators, at the very least, should have been given Dr. Bearden’s presentation, along with frequently asked questions, to better facilitate room discussions.

At least in my room, it appeared that the facilitator’s primary role was simply to listen and minimize any contentious discussion.

While I do applaud the facilitators for their service, it just seemed short-sighted to place them in such a potentially volatile situation without enabling them to address basic questions.

On a positive note, however, a group of us in my room decided to exchange contact information so we could keep each other updated about this issue, and hopefully provide more productive input for future meetings.

Interestingly, after the meeting ended, Superintendent Bearden greeted a group of us standing in the hallway and asked how things went in our breakout rooms. I shared with him my thoughts, and he briefly shared the feedback he had gotten from other rooms.

After this encounter, however, I couldn’t help but think, we’re talking around the symptoms and not getting to the root cause of our financial problems.

And given that these school closures will save maybe $2.4 million, I wonder, what is Dr. Bearden considering to save or generate the remaining $12.6-$17.6 million needed to balance the budget?

At the end of the day, it is my sincere hope that the superintendent will publicly and specifically share the budget-impacting ideas he has received in forums like these, and that they will really inform his decision-making process when making his final recommendations to the School Board.

This, in my mind, would go a long way to building trust, partnership, and demonstrating leadership that we long to see in our public servants.

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]

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