Closing Costs: Inside The School Close Out Process

Jun 2, 2015

When her son William started taking public transportation to school, Lashunda Dean downloaded a tracking app on her cellphone. She shows off the app while her older son and the family cockatiel look on.
Credit Mallory Falk / WWNO

When a school announces it's closing, it doesn't just shut its doors the next day. There's a whole closure process. It's a process Miller McCoy Academy — an all-boys middle and high school — has been following this year. We look inside that process as part of our series "Closing Costs." 

It's a typical weekday morning in the Dean household. 10-year-old William changes out of his pajamas and into his Miller McCoy uniform: white shirt, khaki pants, a blazer and bow tie. He gulps down a bowl of Apple Jacks while his mother Lashunda looks him over.

Then it's out the door and to the bus stop. Dean watches William board the 39. Then she opens a tracking app on her cell phone.

"I can do continuous tracking. It's through McAfee," she says. "So I track him from the time he leaves home 'til he goes to school. So sometimes about an hour."

Because Miller McCoy is out in suburban New Orleans East and the Deans live in the heart of the city, William takes two public buses to get to school.

This wasn't always the routine. Last fall, William rode the school bus. Then Miller McCoy sent home a letter. They were scaling back the bus service. Combining some routes and cutting others. Lashunda Dean was with her sister when she got the letter.

"Thought my sister was gonna have to slap me 'cause I was so nervous and freaked out so bad that morning," she says. "I was pretty upset."

Upset her young son would be on his own, on public transportation.

The school cut its bus service last winter, after it announced it was closing. Miller McCoy still had a year left before its contract came up for renewal. But RSD officials told the board things weren't looking good. The school got an F this year. Leaders cycled in and out. So the board decided to hand in its charter and shut down a year early.

At that point, families had to make a decision: switch schools right away or stay through the end of the year. There's an advantage to waiting. Students from closing schools get highest priority in OneApp. That convinced Lashunda Dean.

"He would be gone already," she says. "That's the only reason he's still there."

Miller McCoy was unique in the system. An all-boys public school. In theory, modeled after the private Saint Augustine. No other school plans to adopt that model.

But as news of the closure came, about ten percent of students transferred. Not a huge number. But enough to affect the school's budget. Charter schools get a certain amount of money per student, based on counts taken twice a year.

"Obviously when we did the budget, we didn't know we were gonna be closing," says Miller McCoy business manager Lee Mitchell. "Once we saw that drop in students, there needed to be cuts made to expenditures. Obviously we don't want to cut faculty and staff. And transportation happens to be one of the largest items in our budget."

So the board decided to scale back yellow bus service and give out RTA passes instead. Saving, according to Lee, around $14,000 a month.

That was the beginning of a process to shut down the school. Patrick Walsh is a state official responsible for helping close down schools. The process goes like this. First there are the students. Then, the building and supplies: desks, computers, things like that. The board decides where to donate those supplies. Finally, the documents: student and financial records.

Walsh's office gives each closing school a calendar with tasks and timelines, something developed over time. Even just two years ago, the RSD collected student records and hand delivered them to each new school in a rush at the end of the summer.

"Like we were literally driving around, like RSD staff driving around dropping off records," Walsh says.

Now there's a clear system in place. The closing school scans the records and distributes three copies: one to the student, one to the new school, and one to a state database for long-term storage. Walsh hopes to create a clearer, more formal guide for closing schools.

"Kind of like a closing school handbook that outlines all of their expectations," he says.

One unofficial step: sending off the final class with a sense of accomplishment.

At Miller McCoy's graduation, the school band performs one last time. 33 seniors stride in, wearing red gowns and wide smiles.

10-year-old William is in the room of young men, too. He's part of the school's choir. William got his second choice school, Langston Hughes. But he looks forward to 6th grade, and  a fresh start.

Support for education reporting on WWNO comes from Baptist Community Ministries and Entergy Corporation.