At some point, says new Dothan Schools Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Edwards, the Dothan City Schools system got knocked off track.
Edwards believes her mandate when hired was to find a way to guide the system back toward an efficient, innovative system that attracts students, empowers teachers and satisfies the taxpayer.
That isn't easy.
The talk of change to the current system has been met with questions about school closings, job losses, classroom sizes and dozens of others. Edwards would like a plan in place by October, which means a lot must be done in a relatively short time.
After two community meetings last week created to gain resident response, Edwards has consolidated more than 400 inquiries into a document with 137 of the most frequently asked questions as well as some comments from Dothan locals. Of those submitted, Edwards said the most common concerns revolved around school capacity and job loss.
Edwards believes the consolidation of schools will aid in generating more resources such as training, educational programs, supplies, and upgrades to school buildings, that can be distributed among the condensed number of educational facilities.
Currently, Edwards said the numerous buildings that are not operating at full capacity rack up roughly $16 million in deferred maintenance costs. However, closing some facilities and restructuring school zones can increase the capacity of all buildings up to about 80 percent and save $3 to $5 million annually.
“I have been asked, ‘why would you punish children because you can’t manage the budget?’ Well that’s not the case. For a number of years now the school system has been losing children. From what I’ve seen since I have been here, it is not that the budget can’t be managed; it’s that there’s not enough funding coming from the state. So, we need to find a way to get everything out of what we have instead of using it on utilities and HVAC units for schools that aren’t full,” said Edwards.
Edwards added that the plan is not to overcrowd classrooms either. She said the idea is to find balance between not overwhelming a teacher or a classroom, while utilizing an appropriate amount of space.
“I think people are afraid that we’re just going to take these children and stuff them into buildings to save money. But that’s not what this is at all, that’s not what I am trying to do,” Edwards said.
Edwards noted that the state does not have any maximum limits as to how many students can be allocated to a teacher at one time. She said that the current numbers of enrolled students call for 21 students per kindergarten through second grade classes, 25 students for each class from third to fifth grade, 25 students per sixth through eighth grade class, and 30 students per ninth through twelfth grade class.
Concerning job loss, Edwards said typical attrition could take care of any potential reduction in positions. She also added that although the schools could be consolidated, that does not mean all employment opportunities will be narrowed as well.
“If one school only has one janitor and it is closed, that doesn’t mean that janitor will lose their job. It just means that now, an open school will have two janitors instead of one,” Edwards said.
Edwards added that although she does not think teachers' jobs are at stake in any way, she did mention educators should be prepared for changes based on their qualifications. She used the example of Scenario 1, which features a K-7 system. Some teachers will need certifications allowing them to teach at a middle school level. Teachers that already have such qualifications may be arranged based on need.
Edwards wants to remind the community that the changes she has proposed are a small part of a large process that will take time. She said she is open to any comments and questions that Dothan locals may have regarding the school system, and hopes everyone will embrace the proposals with an open mind as the process continues.
“I think I was hired to look at everything that has been looked at over and over and over again, and try to propose how to fix things, how to get things back on track,” Edwards said.