In a surprise move Tuesday, the Columbus City Schools' Board of Education approved indefinitely shelving the bulk of the recommendations on school closings and consolidations put forth by its task force.
Alison Holm reports.
After months of public forums, and a board room discussion last month by the Facilities Task Force that explored multiple scenarios to streamline and reconfigure the district, Tuesday’s presentation to the board and possible vote on the final recommendations seemed a pro forma exercise. In front of a packed room, 10 speakers made one last appeal for their schools.
Then board member W. Shauna Gibbs followed the traditional thank you to the task force for their volunteer work with a dramatic resolution that essentially shelved the bulk of the group’s recommendations.
“…and be it further resolved that the Board of Education directs that no further action be taken on recommendation 4B, recommendation 5, and administrative recommendation 1. And be it further resolved that the action of this board …. constitutes the closure of this process.”
Gone was the plan to close Siebert Elemenatry School and Buckeye, Mifflin and Dominion Middle Schools. Gone was the plan to turn Linden-McKinley into a middle school, sending its high school students to East High School. Gone was the plan to create separate middle schools within Marion-Franklin and South High Schools. And gone was the plan to reconfigure grades, by sending 6th graders in the feeder patterns to the newly beefed up middle schools. It was an abrupt change in plans for the district, which had charged the task force last February with finding ways to better utilize space and save money for the perennially cash-strapped district. And it took some board members, like Mary Jo Hudson, by surprise.
“You know, we have community volunteers and staff that have spent seven months looking at this in a very data-driven analytical fashion, as well as gathering a lot of community feedback. The recommendations were revised with that feedback and moved forward. Doing a split-second resolution of this nature in my opinion really is all emotion, and really is a disservice to our volunteers and staff that have spent so long working on this.”
But Gibbs refused to back down, and board president Gary Baker encouraged board members to discuss the resolution. An unidentified member of the task force, who stood at the back of the meeting, attempted to offer a comment about the process to the board, but was not allowed to speak. After several testy exchanges, the board members got down to what they could agree on. What the 5 board members present passed unanimously was the decision to accept some of the minor tweaks proposed by the task force, such as adjusting boundaries between several schools in Westgate and North Linden to facilitate bus routes. The included a clause to find at least a short-term new home for the Columbus Alternative High School. And they decided to shelve “for further study” the most contentious proposals to close and reconfigure schools, that had drawn the most ire in seven well-attended public forums.
Some of audience who had stayed in the room after the public participation, like Linden-McKinley social studies department head Steve Cudney were a bit stunned by the reversal.
“Obviously there had been a lot of investigating, and reviewing of data, and follow up of things outside the Task Force. And it just seems that based on a lot of the community support that they came to a different consensus than the Task Force. There was a confluence of a lot of forces; the Mayor has a plan for restoration for the city and for Linden, and it’s pretty hard to think about doing that without the high school.”
Although board member Hudson voted for the resolution to shelve the recommended changes, she says the vote delays the inevitable process of making decisions. And she fears the abrupt change may send the message the board is afraid to make unpopular calls.
“I hadn’t seen the resolution until we received it. Given where the community opinons were, and sentiments that a lot of the board members expressed I thought that at least for right now we do keep our focus on academics, but also we do still keep our eye on the fact that we cannot keep everything open. Folks are going to raise issues anytime there’s a closing; we have to think about all our students across the district. Hopefully we’ll come back with study recommendations soon, and look at next steps on consolidating and closing buildings.”
But Gibbs insisted the Task Force’s seven months of work had not been wasted. That study, consideration, and reconsideration, are part of the work of the board.
“This is a continual process, so in a year or two, we may be back in the same place looking at it again. It’s a board policy that we routinely look at our enrollment and our facilities’ condition. But we also have to listen to our community, and we have to know what they want in support and where they’ll be. It also calms down the noise. And it gives parents and staff and students a sense of ease, to stop thinking about what’s going to close, and open their mind to the opportunities and the activities that are right ahead of them.”
The board also announced that it has narrowed the field of 55 applicants for an open seat to a final three for consideration. They are former Columbus mayoral candidate James Ragland, Columbus City Council legal analyst Jo Ellen Cline, and North Linden Area Commission head Jennifer Adair, who is an attorney with the state Department of Administrative Services.
The board seat had been held by Dominic Paretti, who resigned from the board and his legislative aide position at the statehouse last month after sexual harassment complaints. Former school board member Bryan Steward served as a placeholder for several weeks, but has resigned. The school board will interview the final three candidates in private sessions this weekend.