Just two days after the Mobile County School Board voted 4-to-1 to close Mae Eanes Middle School and move its students to Williamson High School, one of the board members drew hundreds to a community meeting protesting the controversial consolidation.
On May 24, school officials finalized what critics have called “an orchestrated plan” to close Mae Eanes. The decision was recently included in the $2.5 million school improvement plan aimed at addressing the system’s 12 failing schools, including Eanes and Williamson.
Next year students who would have been sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Eanes will join high school-aged students at Williamson. Though those students will be housed in a separate wing known as the Williamson Middle Grades Preparatory Academy, many parents — including several who spoke at last Thursday’s meeting — are concerned about the wide range of ages at the combined school.
Commissioner Robert Battles was the only board member who opposed combining Mae Eanes and Williamson, and seemed to quickly chalk up the decision up to “racism” on the part of his fellow board members and Mobile County Public School System Superintendent Martha Peek.
Though the mood was tense on Thursday, Battles said “raising hell” was not the way to proceed.
“The purpose of this is for you, as citizens, families and community members, to offer input on the direction that we should go,” he said. “What I’d like to do tonight is to facilitate your participation and try to make a revolutionary change in the process of education.”
Battles previously threatened to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over what he described as “racial disparities” between majority-white schools and majority-black schools, the latter of which have seen recent closings and consolidations.
“African-Americans in this system — because of their race — are being disproportionately impacted by closing schools, and they’ve been denied participation in programs and school activities related to federal funding,” Battles said after the May 24 vote to close Mae Eanes.
Despite those and other threats of litigation, Battles gave no indication as to how those who oppose the schools’ merger might move their efforts forward.
“There is a plan, but I didn’t come here tonight to let them know what my plan is,” Battles told the crowd. “I can’t stop a process that’s in transition, but what I can say is, the people have a right to any kind of government that they deserve.”
Prior to Thursday’s meeting at Mae Eanes, there were talks in the community of pushing for a city school system in Mobile, with many citing the recent independence from MCPSS in Saraland, Satsuma and Chickasaw. However, there was no talk of moving those efforts forward when Battles took the mic at Mae Eanes.
Any effort to start a system would also require support from Mobile City Council members — none of whom attended the meeting at Mae Eanes last Thursday. On social media, some specifically targeted Councilman Fred Richardson, who was in a previously scheduled community meeting at the time Battles and his supporters gathered at Mae Eanes.
While the news of the closing is fresh, the issues at Mae Eanes have bubbled under the surface for more than a year, after plans to use $7 million to renovate the middle school were shelved in favor of other projects at Citronelle High School, Fournier-Chastang School, Murphy High School and the vacant Barton Academy.
Murphy, which according to state records has two times more black students than white students, became a priority after a tornado struck the campus on Christmas Day in 2012 — something Battles said even he would have supported at the time.
“Murphy had a devastating tornado. Well, you know, if I was a commissioner then, I would have voted to help Murphy too,” he said. “I wouldn’t [have] even minded lending them $4 million, but give me my money back, though.”
Since the controversy of the “diverted funds” began, MCPSS released a breakdown of its construction allocations over the past 16 years for each of the school board’s five districts.
With $131.5 million put toward construction projects since the year 2000, Battles’ District 3 schools are the second most funded on the list, just behind the $150 million put into District 4, which is overseen by Commissioner Reginald Crenshaw. Those that received the least funding for construction in the same period are the districts of commissioners Don Stringfellow, William Foster and Douglas Harwell, which have received $57 million, $89 million and $125 million, respectively.
Others, including Battles, have suggested Mae Eanes was closed so the property could be sold to Airbus, though school officials said there is no truth to those rumors. Peek was not immediately available to comment by press deadline.
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