Monday, March 25, 2024

The Problem with RISD's School Closures

"Don't tax you.
Don't tax me.
Tax that fellow behind the tree."

— Louisiana Senator Russell B. Long

In local school politics, that political adage might be:

Don't close your school.
Don't close my own.
Close that school way across town.

With votes Thursday evening, March 21, 2024, the Richardson ISD officially moved to close four elementary schools all over town. In December, I called school closures the "third rail of local school politics. Touch it and you die." I knew that no matter how long RISD dragged out the community discussions, the community would never reach agreement on which schools to close. So just two months later in February, when I first heard of Project RightSize, I said, "Bold. Quick. Decisive. Well done." Now, a month later it's official. And I was wrong (again).

It was striking to me that of the many people speaking in opposition to the plan, almost all were from the Duck Creek neighborhood, a neighborhood whose neighborhood school, Dartmouth, was being kept open. Of the one (or two) speakers from a neighborhood with a school closing, Springridge, one spoke in favor of sticking to the plan. He noted that even though the Berkner Park neighborhood was losing its school, the neighborhood itself was not being divided. They were all just going to a different school.

I had thought that closing a neighborhood school was the most controversial thing, the most harmful thing, that could happen to a community. I've learned from this experience that there's something worse: keeping a neighborhood school open but telling half the neighborhood kids they can't go there anymore.

You can't have a system of neighborhood schools without respecting neighborhoods.

I suspect RISD administrators didn't appreciate this truism either. There were two ways to learn it: either involve the community in the decision-making, up front, even the toughest parts, or make the decisions privately and learn it only after the decisions are made. RISD chose the latter.

A healthy democracy needs citizen participation. I complimented the RISD for putting together a Community Budget Steering Committee, which met for six months before recommending measures the district can consider to address a significant operating shortfall in the 2024-25 budget. Those measures included school closures, but not how many schools, not which specific schools, and not how attendance boundaries should be adjusted accordingly.

The devil is in those details. It's relatively easy to recommend school closures in principle. It's damned hard to say your own neighborhood school should be one that's closed. So hard that tasking a community committee with those questions is a risky move for a school superintendent. It risks tearing a community apart. Perhaps because of that, RISD Superintendent Tabitha Branum didn't do that. She kept the difficult decision-making in-house. We went straight from the community committee recognizing a need for "consolidation of some elementary schools" to her administration making the decision, behind closed doors, to close Greenwood Hills, Thurgood Marshall, Springridge, and Spring Valley Elementaries.

There was never any announcement of the options under consideration. There was never any public discussion about the pros and cons of various options. Not by the community committee and not by the school board. The community meetings set up as Q&A sessions were about the one and only plan that was on the table, Project RightSize. Four community meetings were held to present the plan. 473 questions were asked and answered at the community meetings. Only one tiny adjustment to attendance zone boundaries was made to the original plan. This is not adequate public engagement. It's more like following a guidebook for getting things done boldly, quickly, decisively. There's something to be said for that (I know, I said that myself). But it's not a prescription for healthy public engagement in a democracy. Democracy can be hard. Democracy can be messy. Those aren't sufficient reasons to remove the public from the messiest parts of the process.

It's often said we don't live in a direct democracy, we live in a representative democracy. So, what role did our representatives play in this decision making? The February 22, 2024, board meeting was the first time this plan was presented to the board. None of the trustees had any adjustments that they wanted to see made. All their discussion was along the lines of how we can execute a smooth transition. At the March 21, 2024, board meeting, the board unanimously passed the motion to make the school closures official. Again, no one expressed any opposition to the proposed plan. Again, the board deliberation consisted mainly of asking questions about transition issues. At times it even seemed like the few questions about the closures themselves were asked just to give the superintendent the opportunity to present the district's case, like why was this school chosen to close and not that school? There were no followup questions, no give and take, no differences of opinion expressed. It all had the feeling of a done deal, a dog-and-pony show, not a shining example of representative democracy at work.

Is this lack of spirited deliberation a failing of democracy? If the only expression of opposing views happens outside in the community and not on the school board, then I contend it is. There were over a dozen members of the public who attended the school board meeting, overwhelmingly from one school, Dartmouth, who expressed their opposition to the new attendance boundaries that splits their Duck Creek community in half. Their point of view was not represented in the deliberations by the school board.

How does this happen? I contend it's because of a lack of diversity of opinion on the school board. The recent adoption of single-member voting districts has solved RISD's problem of lack of one kind of diversity on the school board, but it's not added diversity of opinion. I think that's a failing. Unfortunately, I don't have any structural changes to offer to address that shortcoming. It's my homework to think of some.

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