Preparing to say goodbye

This coming Saturday, May 14, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., everyone who ever attended or was faculty or staff or parent or neighbor or just a well-wisher of Holly Springs Elementary School is invited to come join a gathering to say goodbye. By the Pickens County School Board’s decree, the cheerful and highly effective little school will pass away, in the best of health, when the doors close behind the current student crop this spring.

Dot JacksonIts sister school, A.R. Lewis Elementary, also being closed in the prime of life, for similar reasons (whatever, in fact, those reasons really are) held its farewell exercises on May 7. Thus we will add two more vacant school buildings to the sad list of darkened, rotting structures in the county, and several more school buses to the highways every day. This, we are told, is to save money during a financial crisis — which the school board’s finance expert has denied exists.

And this, despite the fact that the taxpayers will still be re-paying — until 2032 — a $6 million debt incurred a few years ago to repair and upgrade these very buildings where dust and cobwebs soon will prevail. Meanwhile, several hundred kids, including about 20 K-4s, will get to spend another couple of hours daily on a school bus, on the road.

Why this? Mr. Phil Bowers, the board member who seemed most determined that these two schools be closed, responded at one of those recent board meetings where the public was not allowed to talk. He felt like he was cheating the taxpayers, he said, by permitting these small schools to operate when some of their classes numbered fewer than a “standard” 21.5 students. (Since no one in the audience was permitted to respond, faculty present could not tell him that some classes had up to 28 or more students — and that the 13-member class that kept popping up as an example of dreadful waste possibly was a special-needs class, where only fewer could be taught to best effect.

But that 21.5-student count rule, the earnest Mr. Bowers adamantly clung to, while as a parent, the writer cringed to consider how that five-tenths of a student might be delivered to each classroom with only 21. Brian Swords, in explaining his own stand in “getting this over with,” implied that right or wrong, the board had voted several months ago to close these schools, and it was time to do it. Kind of like, “Yeah, we know now this guy is not guilty, and the killer’s still at large — but the jury said to hang him, so on with it!”

There is so much more that should be said, about the reasoning of this board. We have suffered through this current term at the hands of some of the most challenged persons one can imagine setting public policy. Ruinous decisions have been made. And how could we anticipate such a thing, at the time of elections? Especially when at least half the seat-winners hold advanced college degrees?

What is agonizingly lacking here is the recourse to correct a problem when it jumps up and bites us. Several years ago, an elected official was a suspect in some jail-able crime. What were we to do, if the miscreant actually went to the pen? The responsible official in Columbia replied, “You can vote him out of office next time around.”

We have got to do something, friends and neighbors. We have been told, “THEY are in charge, and there’s nothing YOU can do,” till we have forgotten that America is supposed to be altogether different. We cannot go to the polls, and designate someone else to be totally responsible for all civic and moral issues — with us off the hook. We have got to pay attention. Anyone who has gone to a recent school board meeting, and observed the behavior of the four members who pushed these school closings — while the two others tried, aghast, to stop them — will know there is something terribly wrong. Something does not work.

Sen. Larry Martin is working on some remedial legislation, to set up some recourse. We need to consult him about it, and help however we can. In the end, we ARE responsible.

Meanwhile, we can gather on Saturday, at Holly Springs School, hear superb music from kids who learned to pick and fiddle at Holly Springs, eat barbecue, play on the school yard, and hear a wondrous presentation by Dennis and Jane Chastain on a school history that reaches back into the 1880s.

And after that, we can resolve to pay attention.

Award-winning author and journalist Dot Jackson is a co-founder of the Pickens-based Birchwood Center for Arts and Folklife.