Plans for closed school upset former trustee

Alex Saitta: ‘Why isn’t anyone pointing out this bait-and-switch?’

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

PICKENS — Alex Saitta no longer serves on the Pickens County School Board. However, that isn’t stopping the former Pickens-area representative from voicing his displeasure over the district’s plan for the former A.R. Lewis Elementary School.

Prior to his election loss to Shannon Haskett in a runoff last November, Saitta adamantly opposed the closings of A.R. Lewis and Holly Springs Elementary that were ultimately approved last year by the full board.

Now, Saitta is speaking out against the board’s recent approval of a capital needs plan recommended by superintendent Danny Merck — totaling more than $35 million over the next five years — that includes $879,000 for fiscal year 2018 for modifications needed for repairs to A.R. Lewis.

The modifications are needed to make way for housing the district’s alternative school and the Parenting and Family Literacy Center currently housed at Crosswell Elementary.

“Lo and behold, they reopen A.R. Lewis for another purpose and found $879,000 to pay for needed upgrades — confirming they just gave parents a big story — as well as spending another $2 million to demolish and build administration buildings,” Saitta said. “Why isn’t anyone pointing out this bait-and-switch and standing up for these parents in Pickens who were lied to?”

Saitta added that he and “hundreds of other parents” attended numerous meetings with district administration and board leadership who cited “lack of funding” for the reason to close A.R. Lewis.

“This year, students from five schools have been crammed into three,” he said. “I voted ‘no’ to closing the schools and presented an alternative plan that earmarked existing revenue sources to keep all the schools open. There is plenty of money, and revenue growth is the highest it has been in 10 years.”

What Saitta is proposing instead is to use A.R. Lewis as an elementary school since “Ambler, Hagood and Pickens Elementary are close to maxed out now” and “will be needing more space at the elementary level in no time.”

But board chairman Phillip Bowers said A.R. Lewis was no longer necessary to operate for elementary students “due to steady declines in the number of students, which dropped by another 145 this year.”

“The Pickens attendance area has been particularly hard hit by student declines, and the cost of operating six schools, when only four are needed, drove the board to the consolidation decision,” Bowers said. “Consolidation has already saved almost $1 million, and our students have benefited from expanded course offerings and support staff in the remaining schools.”

Although Bowers said A.R. Lewis was no longer needed for elementary students, he added the location of the building — approximately 15 miles from anywhere in the county with federal funds that can assist with transportation up to that distance — coupled with some repairs and modifications, will be a positive for countywide programs such as alternative education and parenting classes.

“The state has mandated we provide a separate program for behavioral problems, so we had no choice in that matter,” Bowers said. “Rather than building another building, the board unanimously agreed to repurpose A.R. Lewis into alternative education and parenting at an overall cost savings of over $1.5 million.”

Bowers called the repurposing of A.R. Lewis “a win for students and taxpayers.”

“It provides opportunities for troubled students and allows teachers to focus on learning, not discipline problems in their classrooms — freeing up space at the career center for true career programs, helps struggling young parents who want a diploma, utilizing a building that may otherwise fall into disrepair and eventual demolition and saves tax dollars,” he said. “I am thankful the board unanimously agreed to the proposal.” | (864) 973-6687

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