Priscilla Borders couldn't believe her eyes. It was less than a month ago, and the demographers hired by the Atlanta Public Schools to construct workable redistricting "scenarios" had just released their latest color-coded maps. This was in response to APS's projected $10 million budget shortfall and disproportionate enrollment, suggesting which schools would split, merge, or close. Borders, an Old Fourth Ward resident and parent of a kindergartner at Hope-Hill Elementary, examined the map on her screen with the exactitude of a cartographer.
Not that she had to be an expert to see what it revealed, for it was obvious at first glance: The color-coding showed most of Old Fourth Ward had been neatly carved out of the city's northeast quadrant (the "Grady cluster," the schools that feed into the city's premier public high school). It showed Hope-Hill closed, its students moved to other elementary schools outside the neighborhood, and, worse, taken from Inman Middle School, the Grady cluster middle school of choice. In this scenario, one of two updated maps presented in late January, Old Fourth Ward and the Hope-Hill kids had been gerrymandered out of their school and Inman in a way that would make a Chicago ward heeler blush.
Borders was shocked. This is what she had been fighting against since that day in October when she agreed to sit on one of the first focus groups with other APS parents, so the demographers hired by the school system could come up with a series of principles to guide the process. She'd made clear that Hope-Hill was the last true neighborhood school in Old Fourth Ward. First it was Walden Middle School. Later, David T. Howard High School shut down. Now, Hope-Hill, admittedly underenrolled and (compared to Mary Lin Elementary) underperforming, would be the last to fall. "The school is our community, and the community is our school," she says. "We can't let it go away."
That all sounds terribly unjust, does it not? Of course it is. The area carved out and tossed aside is largely African-American. Let's start with the underlying racial component of that, especially when many of the lesser-manipulated areas of the Grady cluster have a larger white and middle- to upper-middle- to upper-class population. (None of the adults engaged in this fight really want to talk about that, but we will, because we're all adults here, right?) Furthermore, we all understand how important a walkable school is to a community, especially one that is young and gentrifying, like Old Fourth Ward, right?
It's the crux of the new urban movement, the thing that is driving young urban pioneers to reinvest in their city and their neighborhoods. To take that from a community doing what it can to reinvigorate itself — hell, and because of its proximity to downtown and its history, in turn re-energize Atlanta — is shortsighted at best, destructive at worst. Especially when an overcrowded and high-performing elementary like, say, Mary Lin, could simply fill out Hope-Hill with good students. APS could open nearby David T. Howard as a new Grady-feeding middle school, and everyone is happy.
Am I right? Who's with me?
Here's one of the problems with this redistricting debate, on the micro level (Old Fourth Ward) and the macro level (Atlanta Public Schools): every solution proposed fails to solve someone's problem or creates a new one. There's not an option on the table that solves the funding crisis (a $43 million shortfall last year, as stated a $10 million shortfall in 2012-13), overcrowded schools (mostly in the north), underenrolled schools (mostly in the south), test-score disparity, and tectonic shifts that will result in some neighborhoods being, sooner or later, leveled. In fact, I will soon tell you a story that will show you why that very reasonable scenario I outlined above absolutely will destroy another neighborhood, according to its residents.
And I've got even worse news. Perhaps you noticed that I said the inscrutability of this redistricting challenge is "one of the problems"? Which seems absurd, because how can there be a bigger problem than the very fact that the problem cannot be solved?
Because of this quite larger hitch: No one has any idea if these months of debates ultimately are going to mean diddly freaking squat. Because only one man controls which scenario — if any — will be proposed to the Atlanta Board of Education. And that man, Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr., ain't talking.