Officials: School closings saved nearly $1M

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

COUNTY — School District of Pickens County officials recently told school board members that their decision to consolidate schools earlier this year has resulted in nearly $1 million in savings.

According to the report presented by human resources director Stephanie Lackey and finance director Clark Webb, the school district saved approximately $964,275.90, compared to the nearly $800,000 originally estimated.

“We looked at each school, each position and what displaced people were placed in a position,” Webb told the board during a special called meeting. “They were placed in a position that was vacant, and we did not hire anyone that was leaving a position due to retirement, other jobs or other reasons.”

Last spring, the board voted to close A.R. Lewis and Holly Springs elementary schools at the end of the 2015-16 school year. Students who formerly attended Holly Springs and lived east of U.S. Highway 178 are now attending Ambler Elementary, while those west of the highway are now attending Hagood Elementary.

Figures presented by Lackey comparing last school year to the current year show Ambler Elementary has increased from 240 students to 325 students and from 12 classroom teaching positions to 15, while Hagood Elementary has increased from 280 students and 14 classroom teaching positions to 454 students and 24 teachers. Pickens Elementary School also saw an increase from 455 students and 20 classroom teaching positions a year ago to 493 students and 24 teaching positions this year.

Lackey said the numbers are for students from 5-year-old kindergarten through fifth grade and do not include 4-year-old kindergarten students.

Webb said a total of 19.5 positions from the closed schools have also been placed, and Lackey added that 10 teaching positions throughout the district that were vacant due to retirement, relocation or other factors were filled by teachers or staff impacted by the closings.

Board trustee Alex Saitta, who represents the Pickens area, said while it appears the transition is “smoothing out,” he still has concerns.

“The parents, teachers and students are resilient, but I’ve talked to some who are unhappy,” Saitta said. “Going from the five schools to the three schools, there are 78 less students now. I suspect many of them were unhappy and didn’t hang around to complain, but voted with their feet and left.”

While saying the three schools “were held harmless to some degree” on the district’s staffing standard and student-teacher ratio, Saitta expressed concern about next year.

“The standard will be fully implemented then, and those students will lose a total of seven teaching positions, plus some (full-time support employees), and class sizes will be larger,” he said. “Those schools also don’t have extra classrooms, and this building program was to take care of a generation of needs and growth. These three schools are close to maxed out now.”

Saitta, who was vocally opposed to the consolidation, said the board was shortsighted in its approach. The trustee said that looking ahead over the next 10 years, sprawl from Greenville and growth from Clemson University will impact the county.

“The cost of real estate in those areas is skyrocketing, and the housing economics of it all will push families toward the center of the county,” Saitta said. “The next choice for Greenville is west, and it’s going to move this way. People are willing to drive further, and the mistake being made here is that we’re cutting it too close by closing all these schools. I would not have closed all these schools, and I would reopen one of them tomorrow.”

Saitta recalled when the argument was made for constructing new schools in the county that those facilities would attract industries — something he completely disagreed with then and now.

“I look at companies, and they will come because their costs are low, infrastructure allows them to get their product in and out and they can hire labor that is cheap and utilities,” Saitta said. “Second or third down the list is they can have a nice new library or new schools.”

But fellow board member Phillip Bowers argued that the district was able to achieve a savings of nearly $1 million through consolidation, something he said was “a pleasant surprise” the first year since it went into effect.

“It’s great we improved efficiency and saved money while delivering better service to students and taxpayers,” Bowers said. “The report underscores the wisdom of eliminating inefficient facilities and redirected limited tax dollars to higher-priority needs. Almost a million dollars can now be put to better use and expand opportunities for all students in the district by compensating teachers as deserved, expanding opportunities at our world-class career center and investing in maintenance on efficient facilities instead of throwing money away on outdated relics or raising taxes.”

Bowers said the district had estimated not only $800,000 in savings the first year following consolidation, but an increase of $1.2 million the second year and $1.5 million for the third and all subsequent years.

“We’re well ahead of expectations,” he said. “While the report only listed savings resulting from personnel changes, there are several million more in savings because we won’t need to perform large-scale capital maintenance on two 60-plus-year-old buildings. When everything is totaled up, it looks like we’re on track to save about $10 million over five years.”

Although Lackey said individual school principals have latitude to use full-time employee positions in the manner they desire, some for classroom teachers and others for reading coaches, she said schools that are overstaffed are being addressed for next school year.

“We knew that was going to happen with all three consolidated schools,” Lackey said. “We will try and rectify that. We’re going to pull it back, and the principals and I have already started those conversations.”

Lackey said Ambler Elementary is overstaffed by 1.5 positions, Pickens Elementary by 2.5 positions and Hagood by three classroom teachers. Pickens Elementary and Hagood Elementary, according to Lackey, have instructional coaches and reading interventionists that are above their typical staff.

Lackey also provided a traffic report on the consolidated schools. She said Ambler Elementary, Hagood Elementary and Pickens Elementary, despite increased student enrollment due to the consolidation, are experiencing slight fluctuations in car and bus drop-off and pick-up times for students.

School board chair Judy Edwards commended Lackey and Webb for their report.

“All of this sounds like good reports for our consolidation,” Edwards said. “It sounds like it’s going well.” | (864) 973-6687

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