Considering Easley middle school options

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a multi-part series of interviews conducted between Courier staff reporter Nicole Daughhetee and SDPC board trustee Jim Shelton, a former board chair.

Alleviating the population pressure that had been ballooning at Gettys Middle School eventually became paramount for the SDPC board. Jim Shelton admits throughout the building plan process, Gettys had been ignored at worst and, at best, been pushed to the back burner.
I actually had occasion to visit Gettys and speak with Principal Mike Corey some time back. It was obvious to me, even before these interviews with Shelton, that no matter how stellar an administrative staff a school has, no matter how talented the teachers, overcrowding interferes with successful education.
Wishing and hoping that the over-abundance of students at Gettys was going to resolve itself simply was no longer an option.
“We had $21 million earmarked to go into the old Easley High School — the one that is occupied now. The plan was to take that $21 million, move over there and build a new middle school campus,” said Shelton. “But basically all you’ve done is some construction. You haven’t addressed the issue. You haven’t addressed the problem.”
Research indicates that smaller middle schools are better managed. Once again, however, the SDPC still had budget constraints. The need for two smaller-populated and easier-managed middle schools was a grave need. There was no question about this. Funding this need was another matter entirely.
“The first thing we did was looked at the expansion of Dacusville Middle. Dacusville is the smallest of the five middle schools. Population is right around 350 students. But there are certain programs and features that a small school can’t support — some advanced classes, some language classes,” said Shelton. “So the idea was, let’s divide a portion of the Gettys attendance area, taking 2/3 of the Crosswell Elementary attendance area and 1/3 from the East End attendance area and assign those children to Dacusville.
“The other part of Crosswell that is south of 123 and the bulk of East End, which actually comes into the Burdine Springs area and further south through the city of Easley — they would still be designated for Gettys.”
This designation of attendance areas was not chosen randomly or arbitrarily.
In addition to being a less-populated middle school, Dacusville also has the distinction of being one of the highest, if not the highest, schools in the county for school choice. Shelton explained that when the board looked at the parents who were opting to send their children to Dacusville — the bulk of them were coming from the three aforementioned areas.
“Looking at the scenario from this perspective, we thought we could probably move as many as 200 students — 200 middle school-aged students from East End and Croswell — and assign them to Dacusville,” Shelton said.
At the time that would have pulled the Gettys population down to somewhere between 1,000 and 1,100 — still big, but more manageable. Equally important, said Shelton, is that this could be accomplished with no pressure to the budget. No new money would’ve been needed for this.
With Dr. Hunt’s agreement, the board was ready to move ahead with this plan.
“At this point, I went to Dr. Hunt and said before we move forward with any more time, money, effort or energy expended in this plan, let’s stop the process right now because we haven’t gone to the parents,” said Shelton. “This is a major upheaval for a number of reasons — children will be reassigned, logistical issues will be created — this is something that we need parental input with before we go any further.”
Shelton, as he often does, offered me a history lesson here: “You have to remember too that attendance line changes in Pickens County are probably more controversial than tax increases,” he said. “The last time an attendance line was changed in this county — before we split Chastain Road and Liberty Elementary — occurred in 1970. It wasn’t that we changed a line, we erased a line.”
Dacusville High School, which existed at that time, was eliminated, and the students from that attendance area were assigned to Pickens High School. It was more than 40 years before there were any attendance line changes.
“Rather than shocking the public and reassigning kids arbitrarily, I wanted input from the parents,” said Shelton. “Dr. Hunt agreed.”
Three weeks prior to the actual meeting at Dacusville, the SDPC advertised the public forum. Notices were uploaded on the website, advertisements were taken out in newspapers, flyers were sent home with the students.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone who was going to be affected knew what was being proposed and that there would be a meeting for everyone to come and give their opinion. We made it abundantly clear that we would not move forward until we heard from parents,” explained Shelton. “I did not want to take this thing and shove it down anyone’s throat because it impacts their kids and I wanted to make sure people had an opportunity to voice their support or opposition.
“In May of 2010 we held a meeting at Dacusville for this specific purpose,” Shelton said. “We showed some sketches and maps — we had between 100 and 150 people in attendance.”
Two things came out of that meeting that were crystal clear to Shelton: the first one was that the parents of the East End and Croswell children who were affected, as well as the parents of the Dacusville children, were almost 100 percent in opposition to the plan. The second thing that came out, and this was a recurring theme or story out there, the people from Easley offered as a solution the addition of a second middle school in Easley.
“I had heard this discussion before in past years. From time to time it would bubble up,” said Shelton. “I knew in the back of my mind, even before going into the Dacusville meeting, that that was always a possibility, but I never really considered it a probability given the fact that we had pretty tight budget constraints.”