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CMS Superintendent Gorman Talks Candidly About School Closings

The CMS board of education meeting last night was again disrupted by people protesting proposed school closings. Tonight there's another public forum - this time about the new plan to close Harding High. Earlier today, CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman sat down with reporters to talk about the process and the controversy. WFAE's Julie Rose was there and joined Mark Rumsey in the studio to talk about it. MARK: So, Julie, the district has been criticized for the way it's handled all of this. Did Superintendent Gorman express any regrets along those lines? JULIE: Not really. He pointed out this whole process began in June with establishing the guiding principles. There have been lots of opportunities for the public to comment. Tonight will be the 14th public forum on the issue, by his count. He says anger and outcry are to be expected when schools are changed. But I asked him if he's had second thoughts - you know that maybe it's not worth it to go through all of this angst for what's basically a savings of about 6 and a half million dollars a year. Here's what he said. "I believe this is a process we have needed to go through," says Gorman. "Have I wanted to go through it? No. But have we've needed to? Absolutely. I'm tasked with making recommendations for the entire district. As a whole district, we've got tough choices ahead with what challenges we face." MARK: The superintendent mentions challenges there, I assume he's talking about budget cuts. Next year Gorman has said the district will have to cut anywhere from $30 million to $90 million. Is that what's driving the plan to close roughly a dozen schools and consolidate others? JULIE: Gorman and the school board have repeatedly said the money they save by closing or consolidating is money they can use to preserve teachers' jobs. Now a savings of $6.5 million a year seems pretty small compared to the $90 million the district may have to cut next year. But here's what Gorman says. "An average teacher's salary and benefits is $50,000, so when we get something that is $7 million or more, we're talking about 140 teacher positions, potentially," says Gorman. "That's a high school. That's shutting one more high school - that's the equivalent of more than three elementary schools. That's why every dollar counts where we are now, because it's just, this is pretty dire." JULIE: Gorman says when the district gets down to making those really major cuts next year, they'll look at transportation, class size, extracurricular activities, support services, programs and district staff. Cutting teachers comes as a last resort. And that's when this extra $7 million in savings really matters. MARK: So what about the accusations that the school closings and consolidations being proposed unfairly punish minority and low income students? The NAACP has been particularly vocal on that front. JULIE: Right. I think we've heard people ask why so many of the schools being affected are in the more poor and urban parts of town. But Gorman basically says those are the areas where there's room for consolidation. The district has some newer renovated schools there that have space to absorb more kids. But Gorman also says even the suburban schools - and those with higher income levels - are not off the hook. Tough budget times will be here for many years and this won't be the last time the district looks at consolidations or closings. MARK: So Julie, several of the schools on the list for closing next year have actually made academic improvements because of changes Gorman himself has implemented. Doesn't he worry that all that improvement will go to waste? JULIE: I asked him that very thing. Here's his answer: "The results came not because of the buildings, but because of the great people - the teachers, the principals, the assistant principals," says Gorman. "And if we want to keep the staff that we have who are doing that great work in the greatest numbers possible, we've gotta make tough decisions." JULIE: Gorman says the best of those teachers will be hired at the new K-8 schools and he's confident the progress will continue. He'd rather move them to another building than face a decision down the road to lay them off. MARK: Difficult decisions indeed. Julie thanks. JULIE: You're welcome, Mark. MARK: And tune to Morning Edition here on WFAE tomorrow for a report from the public forum set for this evening at 6 p.m. at Harding High, which CMS now plans to close.