Schools director describes ‘mediated’ agreement with Department of Justice

The Fayette County director of schools described a “mediated” agreement last week that the school system has reached with the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the desegregation Consent Order.
At a community meeting Thursday night in the Oakland Elementary School Cafeteria, James Teague told parents and other residents that the school system agreed last summer to do “a number of things” in the Consent Order.
One was to make both Oakland Elementary and Southwest Elementary pre-kindergarten-through-fifth-grade schools at the same time. OES is currently pre-K through third grade, and Southwest houses the fourth and fifth grades.
The school system also agreed that a new school building would be constructed in Somerville to open for the 2014-15 academic year. It would also apply for a federal grant to establish a “magnet” school at Northwest Elementary.
Parents living in a Controlled Choice Zone, depicted in “purple” on a map, would choose “in order of preference” to send their children to OES, Southwest or the new school in Somerville.
But after the agreement was signed, Teague said, the school system discovered that it had less than $200,000 in its fund balance instead of the expected $1.5 million. So, it is applying for slightly more than $4 million a year in federal funds to establish the magnet school at Northwest.
“If we don’t get that grant,” he acknowledged, “it is a financial impossibility for us to fund this without going to the county commission and asking for more dollars. That’s what this Consent Order says we would do if we don’t get a federal grant.”
After considering “all those items,” Teague said, the school system believes it is impossible for it to finance the Consent Order. So, it has developed a new plan.
It still calls for the new school building to be constructed in Somerville by August 2014, and for OES and Southwest to be made pre-K-5 schools. But the Controlled Choice Zone will be reduced in size to an area depicted in “pink” inside the purple on the map.
“We already agreed to close Somerville and Jefferson Elementary schools and house them in the new school on the North Campus,” Teague noted. “Our plan calls for us to also close Northwest and Central Elementary and build the school to a 900-student instead of a 600-student capacity.”
He said the new school can provide “better academics” for the students involved. They will have access to not merely a gymnasium with bleachers, but a “multi-purpose” room with a stage and places for a science lab, music and art room.
If you are the one fifth-grade teacher in a school and you want more training, Teague said, no one else is at your level, and you are “sort of on your own.” But if there are four or five fifth-grade teachers, better training and professional development are possible.
“My job is to provide the best education possible for all the students in Fayette County,” he noted. “But the other part of my job is to do it in a financially sound and reasonable fashion.”
Teague said closing the four schools and combining them into the new school at the North Campus will save an estimated $500,000 a year. And it will benefit all the students and teachers in the county.
He acknowledged that the school board will make the final decision on how to use the savings. But the “rough outline” is to “work on” some salaries, replenish the fund balance and provide necessary technology and infrastructure to the schools that do not have it.
Teague said he, his staff and the board are convinced that they will be able to provide a better education for all the students at the new school than is currently available to them.
“Does that mean they’re not getting a good education now?” he asked rhetorically. “No, but who doesn’t want it to be better? Who is of a mind that what we have now is good enough, and let’s don’t mess with it, if there’s a possibility of making it better? I believe this plan will make it better.”
District 2 School Board member James Garrett, an Oakland resident, said one of his sons is a second-grader at OES, another a fourth-grader at Southwest, and his daughter is a junior at Fayette-Ware High School.
Elected to the board in August, Garrett said he believes Tennessee does a “pretty lousy job” of education. Noting that he was educated in Alabama and has some college education from Florida and Utah, he said his children have attended those school systems.
“There are a lot of places that do it better than others,” he acknowledged. “A lot of places do it better than Fayette County.”
Garrett said he ran for the school board, because he wanted to be on the “inside of the story” and make some decisions to do things better. Noting that he learned about the desegregation order while attending a number of board meetings, he commended the previous members for taking a “40-year-old sin” and deciding to “move forward.”
“I think that took a great amount of backbone and foresight to do that,” he said. “I want to continue that work, because it’s the right thing to do.”
With $500,000 in savings, Garrett said he believes educational opportunities can be increased across the school system. If it is divided throughout a year and reinvested among seven schools, he thinks it can “concentrate education” and increase programs.
Garrett said he has engaged in many discussions about how to evaluate the schools.
“We’re always talking about narrowing the bell curve, how we normalize data and try to bring the bottom students up,” he noted. “Let’s start moving the needle to the right just a little bit. Let’s invest in our science programs and technology.”
Garrett said he believes the school system’s alternative plan will put something in front of him that allows choices. And he thinks that is an important part of being a school board member and a resident of the community.
While acknowledging that the plan is a “change” and a “different direction,” Garrett said it is right to look at doing something better and to do something to make a difference.
“It’s wrong to keep doing what you’re doing and expecting something different,” he concluded. “We’re going to do something different. We think it’s going to be better, and I’m for it.”