Cover Story: Will APS redistricting destroy Candler Park?

Or perhaps Old Fourth Ward? Cabbagetown? Only one man knows, and he ain’t saying.

Priscilla Borders couldn’t believe her eyes. It was less than a month ago, and the demographers hired by the Atlanta Public Schools to construct workable redistricting “scenarios” had just released their latest color-coded maps. This was in response to APS’s projected $10 million budget shortfall and disproportionate enrollment, suggesting which schools would split, merge, or close. Borders, an Old Fourth Ward resident and parent of a kindergartner at Hope-Hill Elementary, examined the map on her screen with the exactitude of a cartographer.

Not that she had to be an expert to see what it revealed, for it was obvious at first glance: The color-coding showed most of Old Fourth Ward had been neatly carved out of the city’s northeast quadrant (the “Grady cluster,” the schools that feed into the city’s premier public high school). It showed Hope-Hill closed, its students moved to other elementary schools outside the neighborhood, and, worse, taken from Inman Middle School, the Grady cluster middle school of choice. In this scenario, one of two updated maps presented in late January, Old Fourth Ward and the Hope-Hill kids had been gerrymandered out of their school and Inman in a way that would make a Chicago ward heeler blush.

Borders was shocked. This is what she had been fighting against since that day in October when she agreed to sit on one of the first focus groups with other APS parents, so the demographers hired by the school system could come up with a series of principles to guide the process. She’d made clear that Hope-Hill was the last true neighborhood school in Old Fourth Ward. First it was Walden Middle School. Later, David T. Howard High School shut down. Now, Hope-Hill, admittedly underenrolled and (compared to Mary Lin Elementary) underperforming, would be the last to fall. “The school is our community, and the community is our school,” she says. “We can’t let it go away.”

That all sounds terribly unjust, does it not? Of course it is. The area carved out and tossed aside is largely African-American. Let’s start with the underlying racial component of that, especially when many of the lesser-manipulated areas of the Grady cluster have a larger white and middle- to upper-middle- to upper-class population. (None of the adults engaged in this fight really want to talk about that, but we will, because we’re all adults here, right?) Furthermore, we all understand how important a walkable school is to a community, especially one that is young and gentrifying, like Old Fourth Ward, right?

It’s the crux of the new urban movement, the thing that is driving young urban pioneers to reinvest in their city and their neighborhoods. To take that from a community doing what it can to reinvigorate itself — hell, and because of its proximity to downtown and its history, in turn re-energize Atlanta — is shortsighted at best, destructive at worst. Especially when an overcrowded and high-performing elementary like, say, Mary Lin, could simply fill out Hope-Hill with good students. APS could open nearby David T. Howard as a new Grady-feeding middle school, and everyone is happy.

Am I right? Who’s with me?

Except ...

Here’s one of the problems with this redistricting debate, on the micro level (Old Fourth Ward) and the macro level (Atlanta Public Schools): every solution proposed fails to solve someone’s problem or creates a new one. There’s not an option on the table that solves the funding crisis (a $43 million shortfall last year, as stated a $10 million shortfall in 2012-13), overcrowded schools (mostly in the north), underenrolled schools (mostly in the south), test-score disparity, and tectonic shifts that will result in some neighborhoods being, sooner or later, leveled. In fact, I will soon tell you a story that will show you why that very reasonable scenario I outlined above absolutely will destroy another neighborhood, according to its residents.

And I’ve got even worse news. Perhaps you noticed that I said the inscrutability of this redistricting challenge is “one of the problems”? Which seems absurd, because how can there be a bigger problem than the very fact that the problem cannot be solved?

Because of this quite larger hitch: No one has any idea if these months of debates ultimately are going to mean diddly freaking squat. Because only one man controls which scenario — if any — will be proposed to the Atlanta Board of Education. And that man, Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr., ain’t talking.

Maybe I made an assumption earlier that I shouldn’t have, when I said that you understand how important a school is to a community. Maybe you don’t have children, or you homeschool your kids, or you think one school is as good as another, or that a child shouldn’t be the center of your decision-making universe. (Which would make you, I suspect, French.)

Maybe you need an example. Let’s look at one parent in Candler Park, and the elementary school there, Mary Lin.

You can see the school from Ken Edelstein’s backyard. He moved there in ‘92, and he’s been dreaming about the day he would join the horde of parents who walk to and from school with their children. His son will be 3 by the fall semester, so that vision is two years away from reality — or so he thought.

Edelstein (the former editor of this newspaper, whom I’d never met before reporting this column) is not living in the house currently. He and his family are staying in Midtown while the house is renovated.

Check that: The house is all prepared for renovation. But he keeps waiting to pull the trigger. Because of the school redistricting debate, he’s not sure he wants to make that investment. If things don’t go well at Mary Lin, which under some proposals would be split up and Candler Park students moved to other elementary schools, he may not be staying.

“In the past 10 years, parents here have made Mary Lin, Inman, and Grady much better schools, Mary Lin in particular,” Edelstein says. “It’s a great school, a walkable school. ... I’m fearful of an outcome that leads to a less desirable educational opportunity for my son, but also an outcome that weakens the neighborhood and community involvement. When that happens, people leave, they go the private or charter school route, which destroys the cohesion and community feeling we’ve built. Because the school is our single most cohesive element.”

After the October meetings and before the January “scenarios” (the ones that scared the Old Fourth Ward so), four maps were initially produced. Old Fourth Ward was pleased, as three of the four options were desirable to them in the Grady cluster. Three of the four were undesirable to Mary Lin parents. That’s when they began inundating APS feedback channels with complaints and concerns, as well as showering community and APS meetings with parents (and children) clad in green T-shirts. (It’s also when Borders and her neighbors in Old Fourth Ward put up a website, held rallies, and crafted position papers, as did many neighborhoods.)

You listened to them explain, with passion and good sense, the problem as they saw it: They have done everything right. They have not fled to the suburbs, where one is free to not talk to one’s neighbor as one sees fit, or even to private schools, even though as a demographic they could afford to do so. They had invested in their neighborhood and their school, with time, effort, and sound strategy. Even though one-third of their K-5 schoolchildren take class in trailers due to overcrowding. Even though promised funding for upgrades to the media center, the lunchroom, and other areas of the school were never delivered. “I’ve lived in Atlanta 12 years,” says Candler Park resident Eric Rubenstein. “It’s the cornerstone of our community. Every day at 2:30, you see scores of kids being escorted by parents and caregivers filling the streets. That’s because 560 of 586 school-age children in Candler Park go to Lin. Closing the school would put untold stress on literally hundreds of children, and destroy the community.” Joshua Harrelson, 34, moved two blocks from the school so his family would be in the Lin system, even though the move “was a sacrifice.”

The residents in Candler Park have come around to the idea that Old Fourth Ward has a point: They’re getting screwed in the latest round of scenarios. If Mary Lin kids — in general, higher-performing on test scores, with a better socioeconomic environment — filled out Hope-Hill, it would on its face be a sensible compromise. But the reality is, that compromise only works on paper.

Mary Lin parents will pull their kids out of the lower-performing school — they’ll pull out. They just will,” Edelstein says matter-of-factly. “Simplistic, well-meaning, equitable-sounding solutions to try to solve this don’t work, because of human nature.”

The argument is that it’s OK for Hope-Hill kids to merge with Mary Lin kids, but only on Mary Lin’s terms, at Inman (middle school) or in a scenario where the majority are Mary Lin kids. The thought is that a “tipping point” can be reached either way — one where high-attainment kids help bring up the poorer kids, or vice versa.

Which, from a dispassionate viewpoint, makes some sense. And which, from Old Fourth Ward’s standpoint, sounds insulting and classist.

“Hope-Hill is a good school, and it’s not as underperforming as they make it out,” says Jacquee Minor, who has lived in Old Fourth Ward since 1997. “I understand the Mary Lin parents. They’re looking out for how this impacts their family. But we’ve had two of three neighborhood schools abandoned here. We don’t need a third.”

(It should be noted I’m extremely sensitive to the Hope-Hill complaint that you can’t call the school “low-performing” until you’ve walked its halls and talked to its teachers and students. Test scores can be illustrative, but they can also be bulsh, at times completely failing to capture a school’s essence. But that’s an entire other story.)

So what’s the solution? And once you solve that, how do you solve the concerns of Cabbagetown residents, who painted over the Krog Street tunnel to express their fears of how redistricting will impact their tight-knit community? Or the parents at Brandon Elementary, whose placards plead for APS to “Keep Brandon Brandon”? Or the Summerhill parents who support the Maynard Jackson High School cluster? Or the Kirkwood contingent that wants Mary Lin students — the prettiest girls at the dance, as it were — to go to their elementary and help strengthen their school (and thus their neighborhood, and thus their property values)? And what about the entire southern sector, largely black, poor, and underenrolled, many of whom feel no matter what happens the north side will get (largely) what it wants because they have political clout, while their kids will end up being bused miles and miles away, fraying the few ties that bind them to their schools, their neighbors, and a sense of hope? What will you do to make everyone happy?

Don’t answer that. Because, again, it doesn’t matter what you’ll do, or what has been said to date. All that matters are the thoughts of one man.

The battle between neighborhoods described above is not unique to these areas, but as a microcosm, it’s useful to look at Candler Park and Old Fourth Ward, if only to see how much sense each side makes from its own perspective.

It’s also good to see the underlying racial and class tensions that bubble under the surface of this debate — often not from the players themselves, who have been respectful and thoughtful. In fact, cries of racism against Candler Park parents (on message board comments and such) have come from white residents in neighboring areas like Kirkwood, say some parents. Although, to be fair, it’s usually ascribed to a rogue element that seems to care more about property values than anything else.

But race and class always have something to do with such debates, particularly in a school district that is majority-minority, with high poverty levels throughout, where three-quarters of students qualify for free or cut-rate school meals. (Understood: Low socioeconomic status is not a prescription for school failure, as Capitol View Elementary has proved over the years. We’re necessarily talking generalities here.) I’ve seen it myself in Dallas, a city that is also having to close schools in preparation for next year’s budget shortfall. These same debates played out 15 years ago when some schools were closed, when all of them were eventually reopened due to surging enrollment, and now that some are being closed again. It’s the ebb and flow of a living organism like a major urban school district.

Still, these decisions are fraught with political danger, and they have real consequences that could scar communities for decades. That is why the final decisions must be made with the greatest transparency possible.

Which brings us to Superintendent Davis.

I fibbed earlier when I said Davis isn’t talking. He’s talking. He’s just not saying anything of value. Which means Davis sits down with the earnest, hard-working stenographers at East Atlanta Patch, or a joint meeting with the deferential members of the Atlanta City Council, and tells them what has happened to date and details the process going forward. All without revealing which way he’s leaning.

Why is that so important? Because, the first week in March, he will make a final recommendation to the school board. And, as he has said, he can, and will, take to heart or ignore as much or as little of the information presented to date as he sees fit. (His words were that he’ll deal with the recommendations given to him “in ways yet undefined.” Oh. Well, then. Jolly good.) In other words, you have no idea what proposal he will make to the board, and you just have to trust him that he knows what he’s doing. Although, he promises that once he makes those recommendations, he will hold four community meetings to explain his thinking.

Now, I’m not inherently against the benevolent dictator model. Were I this dictator, I’d be tremendously in favor of it. And I’m not sure if I have a better solution. But I just know that these parents, who have stuck with the system through the cheating scandal and other PR nightmares, deserve to be able to hold someone accountable for these decisions. And because the demographers may be ignored by the superintendent (he says how much he listens to their suggestions is still to be determined), you can’t hold them accountable. Even though the school board will vote on it, it’s such a politically weakened board in the cheating scandal wake that many fear it will be easy to pass the buck to the superintendent, who is the one who makes the final recommendation to the board. So in that case, it would be nice if he were planning on staying for 10 years, instead of most likely moving on after next year.

Alex Wan tried to broach just this subject in the nicest way possible. The District 6 councilman oversees much of the Grady cluster territories, and he’s heard these very reasonable concerns from constituents. So during last week’s joint council-school board discussion/meeting/thing, he asked Superintendent Davis to respond to the concern that he would ignore or “reconsider” the input of the demographers, who have spent months gathering data not just from the census but from parents across the district. In fact, Wan specifically asked Davis, “Why would you reconsider the arguments of the demographers?”

Davis said that the demographers did a fine job, but weren’t asked to account for financial concerns, or community involvement questions. “They were not asked to camp out at 7:30 in the morning outside a school and look at traffic patterns.”

Which is true. But parents had been telling the demographers for months about said traffic patterns. So it’s not entirely true that these maps were made without that sort of input.

Davis said he is focused on the concerns central to good urban development, like walkability, keeping a school in the neighborhood, and moving kids to higher-performing schools. But he added parents will travel long distances if they have to. He said he must take the entire system into account. He said there will always be “noise” and disgruntled parents. “You can’t have a school system where only half the city is doing well,” he said. He said to read the guiding principles he posted on the APS website, with 21 bullet points like “attempt to avoid splitting neighborhoods” and qualifiers like “favor the retention of,” “to the extent possible.” It offers sound guidance or lots of wiggle room, depending on how you read it.

“I was heartened by the superintendent’s words,” Wan later said. “But like many of the parents in my district, I’m still concerned because this process and the plans presented have shifted many times.”

The community feedback period ends Friday. There are creative Grady cluster plans out there, ones that divide overcrowded Inman Middle School into two middle schools (Morningside and Spark feeding into one, Hope-Hill and Mary Lin the other). This affects other schools and zones out some kids that currently go to Inman. They would, quite rightly, be ticked. So maybe we create some fifth- and sixth-grade academies, as well as a seventh- and eighth-grade academy. But then what do you do when the Beltline brings more families crushing into these schools in the next decade and we have to do this all over again? Do you do this all over again? Do you move to Dunwoody? Do you fight for your school and neighborhood and screw everyone else?

Or do you wait and hope to hell the man in charge comes up with a plan that makes sense, builds trust, enriches communities, and showers your children with love and wisdom?

Of course you do. What choice do you have?