State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), center, was flanked by other members of the Henry County legislative delegation including State Reps. Demetrius Douglas (D-Stockbridge) and Sandra Scott (D-Rex). Each of the policy-makers made a forceful appeal to the Henry County Board of Education and other school leaders in response to the proposed closure and re-purposing of Smith-Barnes Elementary School.
STOCKBRIDGE — Moans from the crowd grew into hoots, as one-by-one, residents spoke out in protest of a proposal to dismantle Smith-Barnes Elementary School as they know it to re-purpose the facility as an alternative school.
The Henry County Board of Education hosted the last of its public hearings Monday regarding a recommendation to move students out of the elementary school into others nearby to make room for Partick Henry Academy students.
The hearing was held at Smith-Barnes Elementary. Hundreds of parents and students crammed into its small cafeteria and overflowed out into the hallways. Sign-wielding parents and children arrived early displaying messages saying “Keep Smith-Barnes Alive” and “We are Smith-Barnes.”
The forum was called as part of the school board’s regular meeting, which includes an inspirational message usually performed in dance, music, song or spoken word.
Smith-Barnes Elementary students were invited to perform Monday.
They danced and sang to Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” featuring Aloe Blacc. A technicolor video mashup of the children, partying around the schoolhouse, played on the overhead projector. The video ended with a custodian sweeping up the remains of the party before coming across their message — a piece of litter that read “We Are Smith-Barnes.”
This was the message Smith-Barnes Elementary families sought to convey Monday, and hundreds turned out to witness their efforts.
Board member Erik Charles agreed with them.
Charles has been adamantly opposed to the proposal since Superintendent Ethan Hildreth made the initial recommendation back in October.
Chairman Pam Nutt said she sympathizes with parents as her own children were rezoned to other schools when they were school-age. She noted her children thrived in spite of their moves.
“It’s been long,” Nutt said, sighing. “Whatever the decision, the parents need closure and the kids need closure. And they need to be getting prepared for what’s next.”
A final recommendation and vote is scheduled for Feb. 10, during the board’s 7 p.m. meeting at 33 N. Zack Hinton Parkway in McDonough.
Hildreth welcomed Monday’s crowds and reiterated “the proposal is no referendum at all to Smith-Barnes or any other school involved.”
He said three considerations were given in raising the proposal to re-purpose the neighborhood school.
“There are three overarching objectives that the current proposal addresses,” he said.
Hildreth said the first was the significant number of classrooms available at Cotton Indian Elementary, 1201 Old Conyers Road. Renovations and additions to the school were completed back in 2009.
Second, he said, there are no projected increases of student population at Stockbridge Elementary, 4617 N. Henry Blvd. The district is anticipating growth elsewhere, up to 1.7 percent district-wide.
The third is the need to refurbish Patrick Henry Academy at 109 Lee St. Hildreth said it would cost between $6 and $7 million in capital improvement dollars to fund renovations and upgrades at that facility.
Smith-Barnes Elementary and Stockbridge Elementary also are the only split schools in the district and would combine under the proposal to create a single K-5 program at Stockbridge Elementary.
Officials projected as much as $500,000 in annual savings.
Parent Renee Shaw stood before the board and refuted the savings, pointing to areas where she felt the board unnecessarily spends more money. She challenged the amounts the board spends on legal fees.
The board spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees annually, partly to litigate cases against students.
Potential savings, legal fees challenge
Attorney Shelly Anand and others with the Georgia Legal Services Program estimated the board spent at least $19,000 to contest appeals lodged on behalf of former student Clarence Park-Rainy, who was accused of trying to sell prescription medication at school.
Park-Rainy was arrested and jailed under the accusation. He was eventually released, criminal charges were dismissed and his record was expunged. That is except for his student record.
Anand represented Park-Rainy in December when Superior Court Judge Arch McGarity affirmed the decision of the Georgia Board of Education and the Henry County Board of Education, which found the youth guilty of violating school policy though criminal charges were dismissed.
State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) scoffed at what he said was a willingness to prosecute students like Park-Rainy on minor infractions at the expense of thousands of dollars annually as they moved forward with plans to re-purpose a nearly 60-year-old school in the name of cost-savings.
Jones attended Monday’s public hearing armed with stacks of reports received through an open records request itemizing by-the-minute legal fees owed over the past year. The disbursements added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. A November statement gave a balance due of more than $65,000, according to statements acquired by the Henry Daily Herald.
State Reps. Demetrius Douglas (D-Stockbridge) and Sandra Scott (D-Rex) joined Jones during the forum and spoke in tandem about finding other savings outside of re-purposing Smith-Barnes Elementary.
They presented the school board with letters from the City of Stockbridge and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources siding with their efforts to “preserve” the school. They also are seeking support from other government bodies such as the Henry County Board of Commissioners.
“You shouldn’t be closing the school down, you should be replicating the success this school has across the county and even across the state,” Jones said. “We cannot sit idle and let this happen.”
Scott said — as she prepared to leave the forum, her eyes set on the crowds pouring into the hallways — that she was grateful for the community support Monday.
“The children have spoken, the parents have spoken and the community has spoken,” Scott said. “We should be teaching our kids history not destroying it.”
Smith-Barnes Elementary opened in 1955 to replace Stockbridge Rosenwald School, built for black students with funding from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. Its modern name is derived from two of its founding families, the Smiths and the Barnes’s.
One of the forum’s speakers, Jeanne Cyriaque, has been studying Rosenwald schools for years throughout the state. She is the African American programs coordinator of the Historic Preservation Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Cyriaque spoke to the rareness of Smith-Barnes Elementary as a school of historical relevance that continues to operate in the same neighbor it was originally built.
Several alumni still live in the area, blocks away from the school.
Resident Kenneth Banks spoke in front of the board previously but returned Monday to speak about his experiences growing up in the neighborhood and attending the school back in 1956.
“I’m a proud graduate of Smith-Barnes Elementary,” Banks said. “It was the newest structure in 1955 in this community. I have friends and neighbors who are all sitting behind me who are graduates as well.
“This is more than about money. This is about the people,” he continued. “You’re not only thinking about changing the character of this school from an elementary school to a high school, you’re thinking about changing the character of this community.”
Stockbridge City Councilman Alphonso Thomas is an alumni.
“I live within walking distance,” Thomas said. “These students are achieving. Do not take that from these kids.”
Parent Eduardo Bryant is retired and spends time volunteering daily at the school as school council vice chair.
“It’s been a positive force for over 50 years,” Bryant said. “The community has embraced the school. It’s my home away from home. I come here everyday and not just because I have a son that comes here. But I believe in this place. We want you to be good stewards of our money. But you know sometimes, it’s not about money.”