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Fernbank: Open Letter to School Board

Teacher confronts the DeKalb School Board on Fernbank Science Center funding.

Patch was very helpful in reporting the DeKalb School Budget Crisis from the Board Meeting last June 4 especially as it pertains to Fernbank Science Center.

I would like to submit this open letter (below) I sent to the Superintendent and School Board in response to the Superintendent returning FSC to the chopping block (after removing FSC) by asking the board to eliminate 2/3 of the FSC Budget and then having spokesman Walter Wood tell the public that FSC would remain a "fully functional Science Center."

It's like saying a basketball team can remain "fully functional" when the three tallest players are removed from the court.

Open Letter to DeKalb Superintendent Cheryl Atkinson and the DeKalb School Board:

I am one of the teachers who work under your supervision for the taxpayers of DeKalb County at Fernbank Science Center. I have never met you but you might remember me from the June 4 School Board meeting. I'm the guy who said that "Now is not the time to shoot the horse" (Comments attached).
Well, it looks like you decided that you wouldn't shoot the horse, you would just stick a knife in him and watch him bleed to death.

When I began my career as an educator 27 years ago at Fernbank, the DeKalb County Public School System was widely recognized as probably the best public school system in the state and one of the best in the country. Folks were always friendly and encouraging. The central office was very supportive and helpful to teachers and parents. FSC was fully staffed and operational at about twice the level that it is today.

Since the days of our former superintendent, Johnny Brown, FSC has been taking major budget cuts year after year, as has the rest of the educational funding in our county. Our central office staff has become less responsive and much more inaccessible to instructors and parents. The funding for security and legal expenses has exploded. Teacher benefits and salaries have been reduced. Fewer DeKalb Schools are competitive for top academic honors and academic standing for the system as a whole has gone way down. Funding for the school system is now in jeopardy. Our wagon is truly, as everyone recognizes, in the ditch.

This is a very critical time for all of us and the decisions going forward need to be carefully thought out. As Superintendent, you are the key to charting our course if DCSD is to survive and prosper in the future. About 97,000 school children, their parents, and several thousand teachers are depending on you. The money situation is dire, but this is not the time to shift our survival strategy to "Payday Loan Economics." Tomorrow will come and DCSD needs to plan for the future, not destroy all our assets to make the next payday.

It is in these circumstances that real changes in the system can be made for positive good if our leadership can develop a vision and have the courage to step up and make it a reality. From the DCSD website we read the following mission statement:
"The mission of the DeKalb County School District is to form a collaborative effort between home and school that maximizes students' social and academic potential preparing them to compete in a global society."
Goal #2 under the mission statement states:
"To increase rigor and academic achievement in reading/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies in preK–12."
Goal #4 under the mission statement states:
"To ensure fiscal responsibility in order to maintain safe and healthy learning environments that support academic programs, resources, and services".

If that is our mission and Goal, then the 4th Goal about fiscal responsibility should not be interpreted and acted upon to conflict with the stated mission of the School District. Reducing and/or eliminating the funding which supports academic achievement in DCSD conflicts with the mission and goals. That is what I mean by "PAYDAY LOAN ECONOMICS" Notice the phrase "support academic programs, resources, and services" in Goal #4.

Slashing ⅔ of the FSC Budget does not "Support academic achievement" in DCSD. You have the letters and petition signatures of thousands of DeKalb students and taxpayers to show you that FSC is an important part of academic success in DeKalb.

Fernbank appears to be the only ACADEMIC entity found in DCSD that has the name recognition and potential to bring support funding into the school district. FSC has done so in the past and is currently doing so in the Lockheed Martin Aviation Camp starting next week.

So far as I am aware, you nor anyone from the central office has discussed with Fernbank any ideas for using FSC as a way to bring in funding or to market DCSD. You are new to the School District and may not understand why FSC is so uniquely qualified for that purpose. FSC is singular in the state and may be unique in the country as a public school facility where hard scientists in a variety of disciplines with a passion for educating children work side by side and seamlessly with certified teachers to develop curriculum and teach both students and teachers throughout the county.

The county office staff have never appreciated and fully utilized FSC as a powerful resource. The most recent example is in the "Race to the Top" funds for DCSD to implement STEM education in our county. FSC has the most qualified science staff found in DeKalb County. Yet the central office did not even ask FSC scientists to participate in developing our STEM programming to use these funds. FSC had to press county school officials to be included on a committee. It's like DCSD trying to play chess without using your knights, rooks, or bishops.

FSC has, for a long time, been constrained by our partnership with the Fernbank Museum of Natural History. FMNH is strongly against FSC seeking outside support from grant funding and they are also against any public programming done at FSC (which we have done throughout our 48 year history and which ties into the mission of DCSD). Now, since our partnership has been severed by FMNH, we are free to compete for Grants and Funding in the open marketplace and to develop and conduct programming in the interests of DCSD without interference from FMNH.

Here are some suggestions for DCSD to use FSC as a funding draw:
1) Increase public programming at FSC, including lectures and public workshops, and charge for it.
2) Market the Science Center as a site for science meetings and conferences. This will raise a little money and also give exposure to help restore some public confidence in DCSD's credentials in STEM.
3) Use the unusual integration of scientists and educators at FSC to bring in grants for teaching science and developing curriculum throughout the school system. Several SFC instructors have some very concrete ideas that should attract funds.
4) Work with FSC, Georgia Tech, Emory University, the State of Georgia, and DHCA to establish a Foundation for FSC (as proposed in the June 4 School Board Meeting by the President of DHCA) which will put FSC on the path to become self supporting. Instructors and staff could be jointly supported by DSCH and the foundation.

The Cooperative Extension Service is an unusual government entity that is supported at the Federal, State, and Local Government level to deliver education and support from the Land Grant Colleges to citizens (originally farmers, but now to urbanites as well). It provides a good model for a large and diverse jointly funded entity with a mission of education.

Instead of using FSC as a way to bring in funding or at least saving it for its academic value, you seem determined to destroy it. FSC is only 0.6% of a very large school budget. Far too many of our taxpayers dollars are now committed to activities other than educating children. If you really try, I think you could find some creative ways to redirect some of those funds back into educating children and save Fernbank and some of the other academic stars of our county like Montessori and charters.

Maybe some negotiation and directed settlements could be achieved in the legal arena. Attorneys have siphoned way too many taxpayer dollars from our schools and appear to be in no hurry to resolve the legal disputes. Perhaps the judge could require each and every attorney (pro or con) to settle and return some funds to DeKalb schools or wear a T shirt that says in big scarlet letters, "I make a living stealing money from DeKalb School Children" for the duration of the legal proceedings.

Scripture tells us (Matthew 6:21) "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  If you and the School Board have your heart in educating the school children of DeKalb County, you can see the importance of FSC to "maximize student's academic potential preparing them to compete in a global society."  You will find a way to honor our DSCD stated mission and will not destroy Fernbank Science Center.

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FSC June 19, 2012 at 07:13 PM
Thanks Tracy...can't tell you what it means to hear from a teacher!
FSC June 19, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Thanks Maria! Glad to know you are still out there teaching! These comments mean the world to everyone at FSC. Hope you have let your board members know the same.
Cerebration June 20, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Actually, I was referring to his point about the legal fees. --- "Perhaps the judge could require each and every attorney (pro or con) to settle and return some funds to DeKalb schools or wear a T shirt that says in big scarlet letters, "I make a living stealing money from DeKalb School Children" for the duration of the legal proceedings." --- Funny how he and others at Fernbank suddenly care about that massive waste. But when we were raising a stink about it all around the community, non one from the Center or the entire Fernbank area blinked an eye at the money going out to King & Spalding. Just sayin'...
Cerebration June 20, 2012 at 01:59 AM
I am amazed when I read comments like "the FSC students were doing far more then we were doing at Stephenson High School." and "FCS also enables students to conduct real science research, which we are unable to truly support at our home schools." - from a teacher no less! That's acceptable? Well, I guess as long as YOUR child benefited... wow.
Maria Beal-Parker June 26, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Good Day Cerebration, All children benefit from FCS, those that attend day to day and those who receive outreach; and yes that included one of my own. I stand by my statement that FSC has the means to support students in conducting active research. I charge you to visit our local school(s) middle and high and compare the facilities, supplies and equipment with those of FSC. I charge you to ask why science budgets are continuously being cut and being spent on paper and other things that the schools used to provide for each department; therefore limiting what is actually being spent for science education. Many of your labs / classrooms don't have running water. We have non-science teachers assigned to science classrooms. We are restricted in how we teach the standards because of the lack of. We have to “compete” for computer time because there are not enough resources available for all the students all the time. So be amazed because it’s the truth. Science educator

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