Dozens protest for Edward BellPublished 10:24pm Friday, March 4, 2011
A group of protesters and a board member walked out of a Tallapoosa County Board of Education work session to discuss the closing of Edward Bell School Friday claiming it was illegal.
Board member Matilda Woodyard-Hamilton and Ronald E. Jackson, executive director of Citizens for Better Schools and Sustainable Communities led a group of concerned citizens out of the session scheduled to allow Jackson to speak to the board stating the meeting was held without proper notification and thus wasn’t in line with the Alabama Open Meetings Act.
“This meeting is in violation of the Alabama Open Meetings Act because notification of the meeting was not posted beforehand,” Woodyard-Hamilton said in a statement before walking out saying she would not be a part of any meeting that was held illegally.
Jackson, who had come to address the board on the behalf of Camp Hill residents also walked out of the meeting before commenting on the school closure decision facing the board.
He said board members were polled about Edward Bell’s future during a work session on March 1 and three members voted to close the school outside of the regular meeting scheduled for Monday.
“We consider it a backstabbing ambush,” Jackson said. “If school board members have been polled before the matter comes before the school board, it’s illegal.”
The board’s vice-chairman Martin Johnson and Superintendent Philip Baker said the only vote held earlier in the week was to determine which day to allow Jackson to speak to the board concerning the issue. Johnson called the work session held Friday a continuation of the session Tuesday.
“The board was very generous to reschedule Mr. Jackson for a third time,” Johnson said. “We want to hear from you.”
If the board voted to allow Jackson to speak during the session Friday at the meeting Tuesday, Friday’s meeting was legal because it surpasses the one-day notification needed for a special meeting, Alabama Press Association General Counsel Dennis Bailey said.
Instead of speaking to the board, Jackson led the protesters outside to an impromptu press conference on the front steps of the Tallapoosa County Courthouse.
Jackson said Baker insulted every taxpayer and student in Camp Hill by not coming to them first on the school closure issue.
“It is disrespectful, insulting and a reminder of the old south,” Jackson said to a crowd outside the courthouse. “I’m calling on the African Americans of Tallapoosa County to stand up and say you’re a part of the new south and are no longer driving Miss Daisy.”
Baker said the school board held a public hearing last year about closing Edward Bell and set up a forum for the same issue concerning Councill Middle School at the end of the month to be fair.
Baker added the school board had given Jackson three opportunities to speak on behalf of the school.
“He only came to one of those and declined to comment,” Baker said.
Jackson defended his previous absences on the courthouse steps.
“All of us are busy people,” he said. “I didn’t expect them to have a private powwow to vote to close the school and then have them pretend to be fair.”
Jackson charged that a previous change in districting for the county resulted in a majority of white students living just miles from Edward Bell School being bused to Dadeville schools.
Jackson said that’s one reason transportation costs for the school system are too high.
“Tallapoosa County is no longer in the school business, they’re in the transportation business,” Jackson said.
Baker said the school system is considering closing the two schools in order to help save teachers’ jobs after federal stimulus funding runs out in September and leaves the system with a $1.7 million shortfall.
He added that the board’s attorney, John Percy Oliver III, could not find any record of redistricting taking place. In addition Baker said that 100 students living in Camp Hill currently attend school in Dadeville due to school choice.
Edward Bell was placed on school choice for failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress three consecutive years due to graduation rates, although the school did make AYP last year.
Baker said there is a school choice bus that transports students to Dadeville, but many of the students use private transportation.
Tommy Thweatt, the system’s assistant director of finance, said they lost $360,000 a year in state transportation funding over the last three fiscal years.
Thweatt said that funding had to be made up locally.
“We have to pay for all tires, gas and insurance,” Thweatt said.
Jackson also charged the board with unfairly targeting to close the two schools in historically black areas and that are named for African Americans. He said every school in Tallapoosa County is under populated.
Numbers from this school year indicate that Edward Bell is the smallest school in the county with 181 students. Councill Middle School is the second smallest with 292 students. Dadeville High School has 526 students, Reeltown School serves 753 students and Horseshoe Bend School caters to 767 students.
Jackson said redistricting the county, auditing financials and reviewing the distribution of teachers are several ways the county can help make up the nearly $2 million shortfall and that closing two schools that are operating within their budgets is not the answer.
Baker said closing the schools is only “a piece of the puzzle” and further plans to make up the funds the system is losing in September would have to come after a decision on proration is made in fiscal year 2012.
Baker said no final decision on closing Edward Bell has been made. The school board is expected to make the decision at its next meeting, which will be held Monday at 5 p.m. The meeting will take place in the courtroom upstairs in the Tallapoosa County Courthouse.
A public hearing to discuss closing Councill Middle School will be held March 31 at 6 p.m. in the Tallapoosa County Courthouse.