Published: Wednesday, February 02, 2011, 10:43 AM
By Crystal Bonvillian, The Huntsville Times
HUNTSVILLE, AL -- A steady rain did not keep residents of north Huntsville from turning out at a community meeting Tuesday night about the financial crisis in the city's schools.
About 200 people sat at Rolling Hills Elementary School and listened as Laurie McCaulley, Huntsville school board vice president, and the Huntsville-Madison County chapter of the NAACP presented information about where the school system stands. The NAACP hosted the event.
Alice Sams, president of the local NAACP chapter, told the crowd that the mission of the NAACP is to secure the political, educational, economic and social equality of all people.
"We have no other agenda," Sams said. "But we will point out inequities and disparities within the community."
That includes getting involved when there's trouble in the school system, she said.
"Working together, we can improve the education and the financial status of the Huntsville City Schools," Sams said. "After all, it's all about the children."
McCaulley, who represents north Huntsville schools, including Rolling Hills, gave those present information regarding the potential closure of schools and layoffs of employees, which state education officials have indicated would be necessary to fix the system's finances. She said the school board is awaiting a report from a demographer hired by the city to determine what schools might need to be shut down.
McCaulley said the demographer has told board members it would take six to eight weeks to complete his evaluation of Huntsville's schools.
"If we are wise, we will follow what he tells us to do," McCaulley told the crowd. "Every community in this city will have to sacrifice something. If a board member tells you anything different, call them on it."
As for layoffs, the board is attempting to make changes in its RIF (reduction in force) policy. Proposed changes will be up for discussion at Thursday's work session, McCaulley said.
John Dimmock, chair of the local NAACP's education committee, spoke next, giving a presentation on performance comparisons between Huntsville students and those in other systems in Alabama.
Dimmock told the crowd that Huntsville's schools show a gap of 40 percentage points between the academic performances of its white and black students. By comparison, Madison City Schools has a gap of 33.6 points and Madison County has a gap of 19.8 points.
Birmingham has a gap of just 10.6 points, Dimmock said. Statewide, the disparity is 25.2 points.
"There is something wrong with the (Huntsville) system," Dimmock said. "We not only have a financial problem in Huntsville, we also have an educational problem in the system."
Herbert Wheeler, director of the school system's finance department, admitted to attendees that the system was $19.5 million in debt at the end of the 2010 fiscal year, but explained that September is one of the worst times for the system's finances. In a system with revenues that flow in cycles, Wheeler said, the low part of the cycle is the end of the fiscal year.
The system's revenues are peaking now, Wheeler said.
"The $20 million you guys saw was a point in time," he said.
The finance director said that though progress is being made, the system will likely have a negative fund balance at the end of the 2011 fiscal year.
"How high it is will depend on how successful we are with the changes we're trying to do right now," Wheeler said.
In response to a question from the audience, Wheeler said the system has seen some progress in erasing its debt. That progress is, in great part, because of the more than 200 employees who were laid off last spring.
Another attendee asked McCaulley if the other four school board members, who were not at the meeting, were invited to attend.
"Yes, they all were invited," McCaulley said. "David Blair is out of town."
She had no explanation for the absence of the other board members.
McCaulley attended a similar event in south Huntsville on Jan. 24 sponsored by the South Huntsville Civic Association. Blair and board member Jennie Robinson spoke at that meeting.
Superintendent Dr. Ann Roy Moore was present for much of Tuesday's meeting in north Huntsville. She was not at the south Huntsville meeting, however.