"The administration is pitting school against school," says city school-board member Patrick Dowd.
Teachers and parents of students at Miller African-Centered Academy in the Hill District were initially relieved when, on May 10, the board said this elementary school would not be closed but in fact expanded to a K-8 program. The Board of Education had proposed splitting the school's students and its special ed program between the Vann and Weil Technology elementary schools, also in the Hill.
But the May 10 proposal now had Weil closing. Miller's K-8 African-centered program would move to the Weil building. Now Weil parents have become as enraged as Miller parents once had been.
Dowd says the board is committed to Miller's special program, but that its current facilities cannot accommodate a K-8 program, let alone a pre-K program they'd also like to put in Miller.
Miller PTO President Justin Laing, who has studied the May 10 proposal, says in reality Miller has just been given a reprieve from closing. Since Weil was not among the 16 schools originally proposed for closing by the board, it would require the same 60- to 90-day public-comment period under law, and even then there's no guarantee Weil would close -- especially if Weil produced the kind of community response that saw hundreds of parents, scholars and activists overpowering public hearings and staging rallies in support of Miller. Thus, Miller's building might close without Miller's program having anywhere to go.
The result, potentially, is a fight to the finish between neighboring elementary schools -- a fight that Laing and Miller parents say they don't want to happen. They're concerned that the district is dividing the already struggling Hill District community.
Board member Mark Brentley is caught in the crossfire. He attended a heated meeting earlier in May between Miller's and Weil's PTOs, though Laing says it eventually grew more productive.
Brentley now says the district should put the whole consolidation plan on hold for at least a year -- a proposal state Rep. Jake Wheatley is now trying to get through the legislature (see "No Closure"). But even Laing agrees that, while more time is needed to formulate the plan, not all schools should stay open.
Closing 15 of the district's 86 schools would reduce excess seats by almost 5,000 and would cut costs by about $9 million annually. Not to close schools now would be "financially irresponsible," says board member Dowd.
The question for many, however, is how Miller was placed on the closure list. Of the four Hill elementaries, Miller has the second-highest enrollment and the highest percentage of net functional capacity (272 enrolled out of 340 seats, or 80 percent). Brentley says the board would ideally like to keep open elementary schools with enrollments near 300. The only Hill school other than Miller that comes as close to that number is Weil.
The board also considered facility conditions when devising its consolidation plan. Miller, which opened in 1849, is the oldest black public school in the city and has occupied that building since 1867. But the district has poured over $600,000 into the school in the last few years, including building a new library.
While Weil has more students and a larger functional capacity than any of the Hill schools, it was the second candidate for closing. Madison Elementary has the lowest enrollment.
Brentley says he never recommended that Miller or Weil be closed and has asked fellow board members for the origin of those suggestions, but has gotten no answer. The entire plan should be tabled for one year, he believes, while Miller remains in its current building, expanded only to a K-6 school.
Doing that would be like "punting at the 5-yard line" says Dowd. "Taxpayers are not going to be happy, but they would be even more upset if they had to put dollars into excess seats when we should be using all that money to address the achievement gap and academic improvement in general."
Says Juan Glover, who has a daughter at Weil: "We don't want Weil or Miller to close and we're going to sit down with Vann and Madison's parents also to work out a logical solution."
Concludes the Miller PTO's Laing: "We're just asking the board to be honest about how they're handling this situation and the honest thing to do is to pull Miller off of the list entirely and just say, 'We made a mistake'."