Thursday, February 3, 2011

What's the fix?

Okay - I'm going off the path again so I'm going to beg your favor while I bend your ear about a subject near and dear to me. That's right! The current state of Huntsville City Schools has me worried and concerned for my children's education.

Huntsville is a city that has so many things going for it. We have a large military installation that is growing. We have a NASA center. We have multiple colleges and universities, including UAH which is a leading research school for science and technology. We have multiple research parks. One would think, and rightly so, that we have a very well educated populace. They say we have more engineers per capita than any other place. I don't doubt that at all. And the number of residents with advanced degrees is staggering.

I have barely scratched the surface of things that are great about Huntsville. When we relocated here in 1998, we rented a house for 1.5 years. That time allowed us to find our place in the area. We knew where my work would be, and then we found child care. And soon we had found a church. Our oldest enrolled in a dance program. And then we began to work with a realtor to find a place to purchase. We looked in the city of Madison. We looked out in the county. We checked out neighborhoods all over. The traffic in Madison was a nightmare and I don't see where that has improved at all in the past 13 years. If anything, it has become worse with the influx of new citizens.

Madison county, and to some extent Madison city, have mushroomed. Cotton fields have become subdivisions almost overnight. The county does not provide the services that come with city living and the zoning laws are not very strict. You could find your new home downwind of a pig farm if you weren't careful. They are the growth areas and it seems realtors often start their clients in these areas. But because we knew after 1.5 years that Huntsville is where we wanted to be, we were able to narrow our focus.

Huntsville will continue to find most new residents gravitating to Madison city and county if we don't fix the problems with Huntsville City Schools! What problem? The debt that is hanging around our neck like a millstone! The current total is $19.5M. That is not small change. Things have gotten so bad that the state board of education has threatened to step in and take over.

So now we find ourselves faced with difficult choices. We have already had a significant round of cutbacks at the schools. For instance, my children's school only has a part time assistant principal and a part time counselor. We have to share these administrators with the other magnet school (k-8). It makes it very difficult to arrange a conference when the person is out of the building. And that is just small sample of things all over the city. We also closed several schools this past year. There were hopes that at least one of the buildings would sell quickly after the school closed. Now over 1 year later, these building still sit empty with taxpayers still covering the utility bills that are required whether the buiding is in use or not.

Then comes word that our board is over paid! This has been going on for 2 years! Even with the cut back in pay to the max allowed, we have the highest paid board in the state! Incredible! If only our schools reflected that.

So now things are coming to a head. A former state superintendent is being hired to come in and help the current superintendent make the decisions necessary to balance the budget. Mind you, the current superintendent is a lame duck. She has resigned her post and will leave as soon as an interim can be put in place. It is hardly fair for an interim to handed this problem and told to make the cuts.

So what happens now? Rumors are swirling all over town! Some say the magnets will be targetted but they are still part of the court ordered desegregation. Unless the order is lifted, there is no way for the magnets to be cut. It is said that ASFL has the highest number of locally paid staff. I'm not sure what that means for them as certainly, the locally funded positions are being targetted. Non certified staff are going to be cut as well. Does that mean fewer aides in the classrooms? Fewer custodians to clean? Fewer maintenance workers to maintain an aging set of buildings?

I don't have any answers but I am following the debate closely. Like many other parents and homeowners, I will be watching to see that my children continue to receive a quality education in an environment that remains safe and nurturing for them. I am watching to see that cuts are made equitably. It is not fair to target one side of town and not the other. It is not fair to cut programs that advance our children's education. I believe that the arts make a difference. I believe that gifted education is vital. I believe that foreign languages are a requirement for success in a global society. I believe that learning a trade can put an individual on a path to success. I believe that our schools are a tool for growth. If Huntsville expects to benefit from BRAC, our schools must be fully funded and flourishing.

I would love to know what you think about this. Do you have ideas to improve our schools? Have you met with resistance before? Maybe now is the time to put those ideas into practice.

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