Fort Worth district delays talks on closing school for pregnant students

FORT WORTH -- After one trustee angrily walked out of the budget workshop Tuesday night, other school board members agreed to delay discussion of a proposal to close the district's school for pregnant students.

Trustees had asked administrators to suggest ways to reduce a nearly $20 million budget shortfall, and one option proposed was to close the Center for New Lives and serve those students through another program.

They eventually said they needed more time to understand what the long-term effect of closing New Lives would be and whether there are other options, such as moving it from a leased location in south Fort Worth to a high school campus.

"When you rush into things, you make a mistake," board President Ray Dickerson said. "We don't need to make mistakes in this area."

New Lives costs about $2.7 million a year to operate, most of that for staff. The lease costs about $240,000 a year. The current lease expires in August.

The center's enrollment fluctuates, with about 110 students attending each month. Child care and other support and social services are provided on campus.

Administrators suggested sending New Lives students to the district's Project Reach program, which serves about 400 to 600 pregnant students or parenting students a year on their home campuses. Five social workers work with about three high schools each and feeder middle schools.

Officials also noted that students in the Reach program had higher graduation rates and lower dropout rates than those at New Lives.

But Trustee T.A. Sims said students at New Lives tended to come from more difficult circumstances, such as having little support from their own parents or having multiple children. The students remaining at their home campuses tend to have more support, he said.

Sims said he had been talking with staff about finding district-owned sites for New Lives, such as at a high school campus.

Discussion of program details upset Trustee Juan Rangel. He walked out of the meeting, saying the discussion should be limited to budget matters. He said it was inappropriate to discuss the programs in the absence of New Lives supporters.

At last week's meeting, trustees told about two dozen New Lives supporters that they could address the board at the June 22 meeting because the posted agenda did not include a time for public comment.

"To me, you pit two programs against each other, and I think that's very unfair," Rangel said, adding that the board was not being transparent. "It's not what we agreed to talk about."

Dickerson said that, to make an informed decision, the board needed to understand how the two programs operate and what their success rates are.

"There needs to be a dialogue about it," he said. "We will address these matters in a public meeting."

Administrators also looked at the district's truancy court program, which costs about $684,000 annually. Trustees said they want to meet with county officials about expanding the program to include other districts in Tarrant County that could share operating costs.

The school board is expected to adopt its 2010-11 budget at Tuesday's meeting. Some trustees indicated that they would like to give employees a 1.5 percent raise.

EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700