Crowd packs meeting in support of Hagood Elementary, still ‘no decision’ on closing school

Rocky Nimmons/Courier

A large crowd was in attendance at Monday night’s school board meeting in support of Hagood Elementary School.

By Rocky Nimmons

EASLEY — In a loud, clear voice at Monday night’s Pickens County School Board meeting, chair Judy Edwards said “no decision has been made on closing any schools in Pickens County.”

Rumors of the closing of Ben Hagood Elementary have run rampant for months, with PTO members, teachers, students and local businesses all getting on board for a “Save Hagood” campaign.

As the room was filled to capacity, nearly a dozen people spoke out against the school’s closure during Monday night’s board meeting at the Curtis A. Sidden Administrative Office in Easley. All wanted to simply convey the message to board members that Hagood Elementary is important and needs to stay open.

Although emotions were high for saving the school, much respect was given in the meeting by all in attendance. Speakers spoke with passion and started and ended their chances to speak with prayers for the Hagood’s future.

Rocky Nimmons/Courier Hagood Elementary School PTO president Rebecca Newman speaks to the Pickens County School Board on Monday night.

Rocky Nimmons/Courier Hagood Elementary School PTO president Rebecca Newman speaks to the Pickens County School Board on Monday night.

“I come to you as a fellow educator, concerned parent and president of the PTO,” Rebecca Newman told school board members. “The faculty and staff share a common vision, where all decisions big or small are student-driven. That is what makes a good school a great school.”

Newman said as a military spouse, she has worked at six schools in four states, and her last two years at Ben Hagood have been amazing to watch.

“The school runs like a well-oiled machine,” she added.

She said a PTO that was once almost nonexistent raised more than $12,000 just this year for the school that was designated for playground equipment and technology for the school.

Newman said she stood with an army of parents and community members that were united to fight to save Hagood Elementary.

“Hagood is not just a building — it is a family to everyone that has ever graced the halls,” she told the board. “It is a school with a heart. It is a safe haven that provides stability. Do you want to take that away from them?”

She pointed to research that shows when children who suffer from anxiety, trust issues and illnesses such as autism and Asperger syndrome are moved, it can cause a great setback in growth and development.

“Do you want to be held accountable for that?,” Newman asked board members.

She asked that the board not make a hasty decision.

“Hagood should be a permanent fixture in our community,” she said. “I invite each of you to come to our school. I find it hard to believe that you can make the best decision for our school without walking the halls and seeing firsthand the progress made and the difference we make in the lives of our students.”

Later, Hagood student Noah Constance took the podium and said he was there to ask that the board not close his school.

“First of all, I know more people will eventually come to this school,” he said. “If you separate us, we might not be able to see our friends, and other schools will become overcrowded. Teachers help us learn, but this will become difficult because of crowded classes. Students will not have the same opportunity that I have.”

He also asked board members to take their time and make a decision that is best for the students.

Junius Smith took to the podium and starting by listing off the words “preserve, protect and defend.”

“Have you heard of those before? It is not there as an option — it is there as a demand that you do these things,” he told school board members.

He reminded the board there was $30 million available at the state level for charter schools.

“If it comes down to money, you can look down there,” he said.

Hagood parent David Hayes spoke on behalf of his daughter, Natalie, who has Down syndrome. He said that his daughter started at Pickens Elementary, but was told Hagood was a better place for her.

“They have done a great job with her, and I have seen improvement,” Hayes said. “I know she could go to another school, but it took her three months to get adjusted to Hagood. She does not do well with change. I know it all comes down to money.

“As a father, it is my responsibility to take care of my children. It is the board’s responsibility to take care of the children in our schools.”

Following the speakers, school board member Phillip Bowers gave a report on the district’s facilities. Bowers presented a slideshow that showed the efficiency of how the elementary schools in the county are being used. Bowers pointed out that the four Pickens-area elementary schools are all only at around 50 percent of their capacity.

“There are a lot of empty seats in the Pickens district,” he said. “Hagood has the most, and Ambler is the closest to capacity, but it is a long way from full.”

That, along with costs that were projected for repairs such as roofs and HVAC systems and the lack of students, are the reasons the Ben Hagood Elementary closure rumor got started.

“I can understand how that rumor got legs,” Bowers said. “There are 369 seats available at Hagood that aren’t being used, and when you look at what has to be spent at Hagood, $1.7 million, you can see why someone would think Hagood would be a prospect for closing. But that decision has not been made. It is pretty obvious that we (the board) have some work to do.”

Board member Alex Saitta expressed support for the school to remain open, saying in the past the board spent millions of dollars to increase capacity to eliminate portable classrooms.

“Now that you have done that, you don’t just turn around and say, ‘wow, we are just going to wipe that capacity out.’ We spent $15-20 million to get it. We just have to live with it,” he said. “There was a mistake. They put too much extra capacity into the system. What do you do now? Do you close the schools? I don’t think so. I think you use them for the primary purpose you have them for.”

Bowers replied, “Essentially what you are saying is spend $4 million on these buildings that are half empty, just because we spent money in the past. To me, there is no good decision and we can’t undo the past.”

Edwards said the board was not ready to make a decision.

“We still have lots of work to do,” the chair said. “Based on the evidence that Mr. Bowers had given us, we have a lot of tough decisions to make.

“We will start discussion this week, and I promise you as chairman I will do everything possible to have a recommendation by the end of February and no later than mid-March.”

Edwards reminded those in attendance that no decisions have been made.

“There is no school that has been decided to be closed,” she said. “We haven’t decided on anything absolutely yet. So just stay with us like you did tonight and stay kind and understanding, and I promise you we are going to do everything we can to find the right answer.”