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Harding Proposal Evokes More Frustration At CMS Meeting

Harding University High school parents, teachers and students attended board meeting to show their opposition to CMS plans to

CMS presented its final recommendations to board members last night on school closings and boundary changes. The proposals were met with plenty of opposition in the audience. Many spoke out against the district's decision this week to recommend the board close Harding High School and keep E.E. Waddell open. WFAE's Lisa Miller takes us through the range of emotions, questions and comments throughout the evening. The evening began with an apology of sorts from board chairman Eric Davis for cutting short a forum two weeks ago. That was the one where two people were arrested. Davis had asked those who didn't get time to speak then to come back for this meeting. "I regret that that happened... and that decision was solely mine. It was not any other member of the board and I hope it doesn't reflect on the board or the school system. I realize that choice was not the best choice," Davis said. Several parents urged the board not to close schools. As the board's regular meeting began, more people started filling the room - about 170 people in total, many of them Harding parents and students. They listened as staff talked through the latest changes to the plan: Adding Harding to the closure list, delaying the closing of University Park Elementary for a year, and not turning First Ward into a year-round magnet - for now. Afterward, a couple board members drilled staff on the proposals. Kaye McGarry took issue with several parts of the plan. "I have a problem with letting the public know in such short notice about the Harding University (closing)," she said to audience applause. Richard McElrath asked Superintendent Peter Gorman a variation of a question many parents and students had put to him about public input. "If you find out that Harding doesn't want to go to Waddell they want to stay at Harding how much weight would that carry and if it's not going to carry a lot of weight why go?" Gorman's response: "We've made our recommendations. Now our recommendations come to the board. That question rests with the board members, sir." A few seconds later about 20 people in the audience broke into a chant led by local NAACP President Kojo Nantambu. "No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace," they said. Board Chairman Eric Davis then called a recess. "We will not stand, we will not sit down," yelled one of the people chanting. But most of the crowd was sitting, trying to listen. Like Nantambu, they are upset with CMS, but the yelling clearly bothered some of them. One Harding parent noted wants to keep it "classy" as police cleared out the room. Nantambu and a few others staged an impromptu press conference outside the chamber. "This community cannot go on perpetrating this fraud and pretending to be all this world class city and at the same time oppressing its minorities and low-income and people of color. That's wrong," he said. Harding parent Andrea White kept her distance, clutching a stack of petitions. "No, it's not Harding's way. We're quiet. Those weren't Harding parents. But I understand their frustration," White said. "That's the way they vent they their frustration. At Harding, we're going to have our petitions." The meeting reconvened about 20 minutes later. For the most part, the audience remained quiet as board member Trent Merchant got a few things off his chest. "I'm going to be honest. There's been a lot of shouting," he said. "And I have to tell you the kids ask better questions than the adults because they actually wanted to hear answers. They weren't just making statements." He said he's heard from a lot of people frustrated with CMS. "It's not just on the west side. It's not. There are people all over asking, "What are you doing? Why are you doing it?" That's where we've missed. We've talked a lot about the what and maybe we haven't been very clear on the why." A big part of the why, he went on to say, is to minimize teacher cuts next year. As the meeting ended, a few people including Nantambu had more questions for board members and CMS planners. People talked to each other, and everyone appeared to be listening.