Friday, December 12, 2008

Rezoning and the new Re-Segregation

I don't write much about local politics or issues, except when the actions of our public officials are so egregiously out of step with reality. Last night's thick-headed actions by the Athens Clarke County School Board officially qualify as such.

After months of deliberation, the Clarke County Board of Education agreed Thursday to do away with school choice and accept a plan that could send up to half of all students to new schools next fall.

Faced with a projected budget shortfall of nearly $6 million over the next two years, board members approved the plan, which could save up to $1.2 million a year in transportation costs, by a unanimous 8-0 vote. Board President Charles Worthy was absent.

The change - which will assign each elementary student to a single school rather than allowing parents to choose from a short list of schools - will ease overcrowding at some schools and encourage more parent involvement, administrators said.

Which would explain the hundreds of "loudest" and outraged parents who called, wrote, emailed and attended "public input meetings" throughout the fall to speak out against the plan.

Another quibble with the supposed transportation costs (which is what this entire re-zoning plan was designed around): the supposed $1.2 million in savings was calculated when gas was roughly $4 per gallon. With gas in a free fall (and some economists predicting below $1 per gallon by spring), the so-called "savings" from this plan will be minimal.

I'll confess to a bias here. I have a kid in Clarke schools and emailed the Superintendent throughout the fall, providing him with data (which the district itself was and still is sorely lacking) showing the links between residential segregation and school segregation. For example, as Jonathan Kozol points out in his blistering book "Shame of the Nation", neighborhood schools re-segregate our kids based on SES, first, and race/ethnicity second.

School choice, despite its flaws, allowed for a diversity of students to attend different schools other than their neighborhood school. Low income kids mixed with middle and high income kids, to the benefit of everyone, as the research clearly shows.

Now, we'll have elementary schools which are largely all one class or all one race. What diversity has been achieved the past five years will be lost on the altar of "saving money", which itself turned out to be a miscalculation.

Disappointing as well were the Superintendent's comments in yesterday's paper, before the vote, which ran contrary to his assurances at these meetings that the District would "go back to the drawing board" to address parental concerns which were raised.
"After consideration of the input received at our community forums, we are convinced that the concept plan as presented in September is the best overall plan in view of the many complex factors which are involved," Interim Superintendent James Simms said in his recommendation for the board to approve the new attendance zones.
In other words, the entire process was a sham. The hundreds of comments, counter-proposals, and pleas at these dog and pony shows supposedly weren't any better than the sloppy, data-less, powerpoint presentations first put on by the district.

So now we end up with a school board pushing a plan to further segregate the elementary schools throughout the county, all the while hoping middle class parents won't continue their exodus out of Athens to look for educational opportunities.
"Athens has not increased the number of students here in at least 20 years," [Board Member Sidney Anne] Waters said. "All the other counties have grown by a significant amount. That's because the people wouldn't move to this school district because they didn't know where their child would go to school."
And now that they do, a real exodus might indeed be underway. In case anyone hasn't seen the movie, re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic didn't stop it from sinking, just as re-drawing school districts and forcing parents into failed schools won't save the district from inferior performance.

It really is the perfect storm of brute government, if you think about it. Outraged parents threaten to pull their kids out of the Clarke schools, and would move out of the county if they could, but with a stagnant real estate market, and property values in some of the new zones probably plummeting overnight on the news that their new elementary school is now (fill in the blank failed school), they're stuck.

And to add insult to injury we were blithely, if not somewhat witlessly, reminded by Board Member Vernon Payne that those parents who complained were just being "selfish."
"We have to make a hard decision, and you can't expect everyone to agree," Payne said. "Usually, it's the people who make the loudest noise who are doing it for their own benefit. This is not for their benefit, this is for the benefit of all students. This is a good program and I support it 100 percent."
LOL. Spoken like someone who doesn't have a child in the Clarke County school district. Bonus Fun Fact: only one of the eight board members actually has a child attending Clarke schools. But I'll give Payne half-credit: it certainly isn't for anyone's benefit.

At the end of the day, we get the School Board we deserve, so to speak. As if the problems in this county aren't bad enough (one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, rising property and violent crime, etc.) we've now eliminated choice in a community which vaunts its pro-choice pose.

It will be a cold shower come next spring when most of the parents, and other citizens who didn't bother to get involved in this, suddenly awake from their winter hibernation and realize their choice has been taken away. And the neighborhood school you didn't want to send your child to in the first place is now the only choice you have.

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