The DeKalb County School System will have to close an undetermined number of schools and redraw attendance zones to help eliminate nearly 16,000 empty seats the district anticipates over the next seven years, district officials said.
The closures will be part of a broad effort to consolidate space, save money and correct heavily lopsided enrollments throughout the district, particularly in areas where some schools have more than 500 empty seats, Associate Superintendent Robert Moseley said.
The district has not released which schools are top candidates for closure and where lines will be redrawn, but officials plan to publicize a draft of their recommendations by Dec. 1, according to an Oct. 23 school board presentation.
The enrollment imbalance is widespread in elementary, middle and high schools. Projected enrollments for next school year show schools across southern, central and southwestern DeKalb County with dramatically low enrollments, and the situation is projected to worsen by 2016-17, the last year of the school district’s capital improvements plan, which Superintendent Crawford Lewis began in 2006.
The district projects nearly 13,000 seats will be empty next school year and an additional 3,000 by 2016. Stephenson High School, for instance, can hold 2,237 students, according to district data. It’s projected to have 476 open seats next year, but that number is expected to increase to 787 by 2016.
McNair High School has a capacity of 1,663 seats, data show. The school is expected to have 692 empty seats next year and 635 in 2016. Nearby McNair Middle School also has similar enrollment issues. The school, which has a 1,427-student capacity, is projected to have 535 empty seats next year and 584 in 2016.
Reasons for the districtwide imbalance are varied. Shifts in the housing market have pushed people outside central DeKalb, Moseley said, but it’s not entirely clear why. More students have enrolled in private, charter and home school programs, the school board presentation indicated. The district is also analyzing how serious No Child Left Behind’s school of choice policies contributed to the imbalance, Moseley said. The federal legislation allows parents to transfer their children out of an under-performing school to a better-performing one if they choose. Regardless, they know school of choice isn’t the largest issue, he said.
“Even if we took them out, we would still have over and under capacity issues,” Moseley said.
As it decides which schools to close, the district will consider the following factors in addition to projected enrollments: proximity of schools to students’ residences, including travel times; the impact on neighborhoods; school feeder alignments; and the district’s long-range capital plan.
Closing a high school, for instance, will likely be more complicated than closing an elementary school because there are fewer of them, and relocated students might have to travel significantly longer distances to attend a different high school, Moseley said.
To further balance school enrollments, the district also will consider changes to admission and transfer policies that govern magnet and theme schools.
Next, the district will have to manage the inevitable roar from parents demanding answers. The district plans to present a “pre-public” draft to the school board, Lewis’ cabinet and the district’s citizens’ advisory committee between Nov. 2 and Nov. 6. After district recommendations are published by Dec. 1, the school system plans to hold three public hearings from Dec. 1-3.
“It can get heated, and I’m sure it will, but the public feedback is very important to us,” Moseley said.
After the district examines public feedback, it will present its final recommendations to the school board at its Jan. 4 meeting. The board is scheduled to vote on the plan at its Jan. 11 meeting. Attendance zone changes and school shutdowns would occur between June and July.