School Board approves West Broad early learning center

At the September 12 Clarke County School District Board of Education meeting, the board voted to approve an early learning center in the West Broad facility. The final vote tallied four members in favor of moving forward with the renovation. 

Board members Kara Dyckman (District 5), Charles Worthy (District 6), vice president Linda Davis (District 3), and president Lakeisha Gantt (District 7) voted to go forth with the renovation. Both Greg Davis (District 1) and John Knox (District 8) voted ‘no’, and Patricia Yager (District 4)  abstained, counting as a ‘no’ vote under board policy. Tawana Mattox (District 9) recused herself from voting since she works for the Athens Land Trust, and Frances Berry (District 2) was not in attendance.

27 speakers started out the meeting, voicing their concerns for up to three minutes, and in the hour and a half that followed, discussion centered on concern for the West Broad facility’s future. 

Coming Together: Kirrena Gallagher speaks on behalf of students and teachers in front of the board about school lunch, bus monitors, bullying in elementary schools, making Evans Street safer, and parent visitation in schools. “So apparently school lunch sucks,” Gallagher said. Photo by Coriander McGreevy.

Speakers who defended the West Broad Farmer’s Market and garden talked about what the garden and market mean to them.

“From selling at the market, I’ve gotten valuable selling skills and a good work ethic,” said Tomelo Johnson, a 7th grader at Hilsman Middle School. “The West Broad market garden has been a part of our community for many years, and it would be very sad to see a staple of many childhoods close down.”

Representing Historic West Broad: Shirley Tillman speaks about the West Broad facility and the Athens Land Trust. Tillman attended West Broad Elementary when she was a child. “We want to save the farmer’s market on West Broad, it is historic to our area,” Tillman said. Photo by Coriander McGreevy.

Speakers in favor of Superintendent Dr. Demond Means’ proposed renovation of the West Broad facility focused on the need for more early childhood education.

“I’m in strong support of Dr. Means’ plan for having an early child learning center. Here in Athens, we are confronted with massive disparity,” said Michael Smith, who said his daughter attends Clarke Central. “It’s true that early childhood learning and education and a highly skilled job or a college degree is practically the only way for a person to abstain from poverty over a lifetime.”

At the moment, the West Broad facility is home to the West Broad Farmers Market which opened four years after the Athens Land Trust established an agricultural program in 2010. Vendors and business owners sell their products on Saturday mornings on the historic property where a community garden also operates. 

Dr. Means’ proposed renovation of the West Broad facility does not include a space for the community garden. The plan to renovate the historic West Broad school would include turning it into an early learning center and health clinic featuring meeting rooms and a “student success center.”

Accreditation Concerns: Dr. Diane Dunston speaks about her concern for the children of Clarke County Schools. She believes that Dr. Means is doing what’s in the best interest of the children. “I do not believe the struggles between Dr. Means and his adversaries are about the children. What I am witnessing is a struggle for power, land, money, and resources. The undermining of Dr. Means’ authority as superintendent of schools, the questioning of his credentials, and the blatant disrespect shown to him during the meetings of the school board is reminiscent of the treatment of President Obama,” Dunston said. Photo by Coriander McGreevy.

“How do we increase student achievement? You can increase student achievement in a community that has high poverty through high-quality early childhood education,” Means said during the discussion.

The Athens Land Trust’s ability to work with CCSD on the West Broad facility expires at the end of the month, but Means indicated that he’d be willing to extend it to the end of the year. 

Board members discussed alternatives including spaces where the garden could relocate. Means discussed moving the garden to Clarke Middle, where there is already a garden space. Means also suggested what the proposal for the early learning center might look like. 

“To offer an olive branch to our friends at the Land Trust, I offered to share the facility. This would mean that we would walk back on our original proposal of ten classrooms. Maybe we would have five classrooms. That would allow the Land Trust to have the upper half,” Means said.

Davis, an East Side representative, suggested that the early learning center could instead be housed at the old Gaines building, which has served as a transition home for schools that are under renovation. 

“I’m looking at this beautiful drawing, rendition, of an early learning center on old Gaines elementary school, on the East Side. I’m just disappointed that we’ve got thirteen acres there, and you and I have talked repeatedly about the early learning center over there and you say, ‘It’s going to come someday.’ Someday could be now,” Davis said. “If we can have five classrooms here (West Broad), and we could have ten at the Old Gaines, it seems like that’s a win. I’d rather have ten classrooms of pre-K, opposed to five.”

Working out the kinks: Greg Davis, the district 1 representative, asks about summer activities for students. “Do we have the numbers of how many of our students, when they leave the last day of school, are engaged in academic activity? That are actually academically challenged during the summer months?” Photo by Coriander McGreevy.

Means has other ideas of what could go into the old Gaines space though, including an East Side library, Boys and Girls Club or BizTown. 

The vote for the renovation of West Broad establishes that the school board “will engage an architect to give multiple renderings” on what the different possibilities for the facility could be, possibly working with the Land Trust on the different options. Additionally, Means has said that they will “preserve the presence” of the building. 

Means’ Response to AdvancED letter

Another topic of interest at last week’s board meeting was Means’ response to the complaint filed to the state accreditation agency, AdvancED, in early August. 

The complaint asserted that some board members were interfering with the superintendent and preventing him from doing his job. On the 12th, Means shared part of his response to AdvancED.

“Some board member’s behavior has negatively affected district leadership’s ability to meet our established goals for achievement and instruction, also affecting management of day-to-day operations,” Means said. “I have an affirmative duty to formally request that a special review team be appointed by AdvancED to work with the district on its governance practices and the superintendent relationship.”

The controversy around the AdvancED complaint and the superintendent’s response also has public opinion divided.

“I feel as if any issues with regard to the board should have been worked out other ways, and I also believe we have so many new board members that haven’t received training and information in their role on the board. That probably plays into a lot of what is being perceived as interference,” said Lisa Bayer, mother of a junior at Cedar Shoals. 

Elberton attorney and civil rights activist John Clark views the situation differently.

“One reason you have school districts lose their accreditation is because you have board members who wanted to micromanage the superintendent. That cannot be. That’s not in the law. The superintendent is put there to run the operation, not to be micromanaged,” Clark said.

BluePrints Magazine filed an open records request on Friday afternoon to obtain a copy of the superintendent’s report. The CCSD made the documents available to the public Tuesday afternoon.

Melanie Frick

Melanie Frick is a sophomore Web Editor for the BluePrints Magazine. She has attended both the Georgia Scholastic Press Association and the Southern Interscholastic Press Association. Frick thinks she would enjoy being in a Science or English related career. She is hoping to add more to the website with art and organization, as well as write articles.