Public meetings scheduled for Wednesday at Ambler, AR Lewis and Holly Springs

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal

PICKENS — First, the good news for Pickens residents. The doors of Hagood Elementary School, subject of consolidation rumors in recent months, will remain open.

The bad news? Three Pickens County elementary schools apparently won’t be as fortunate, as the facilities committee of the school board of trustees voted 3-1 Monday night, with Henry Wilson opposed, to a consolidation plan that would close A.R. Lewis, Holly Springs and Ambler elementary schools instead of approving a tax increase.

Although a final decision won’t be made by the full school board until a special called meeting next Monday night, the consolidation plan allows Hagood Elementary to become a K-2 school that would also house students from A.R. Lewis and Holly Springs. Meanwhile, Ambler students would attend Dacusville, whose elementary school would house kindergarten through fourth grade, while Dacusville Middle would house students from fifth through eighth grade.

Both options, either of which would go into effect next academic year, were presented to the committee by Pickens County superintendent Danny Merck. At the conclusion of its special called meeting on Saturday, the facilities committee asked Merck to use the efficiency study information evaluated by the board and committee over the past eight months and present options. The options are to achieve the following objectives: a merger plan for Pickens-area elementary schools to increase student opportunities and reduce operating costs, implement a primary/intermediate format in the Pickens-area elementary schools and relocate the alternative education program from the Career and Technology Center to another facility, such as an unused portion of the food service building on Breazeale Road, near the school district office.

Merck told the committee he has worked feverishly on both options before presenting the final versions.

“At this point, I’ve changed it so much and listened so much, it gets hard to put more on or take more off,” Merck said. “No matter what happens, at the end, we have to agree on one of these two budgets.”

Under the five-year capital improvement plan proposing the consolidation option, no additional millage would be required with operations funds for 2016-17. The non-consolidation option would result in an additional 2.81 mills for that same period (the value of a mill is $444,448).

Facilities committee chairman Phillip Bowers acknowledged as much as $37 million could be required without consolidation. Bowers added that rumors regarding the closing of Hagood Elementary were just that and that the reconfiguration proposal proves that.

“It makes no sense to close Hagood, because you would be sending students up (U.S. Highway) 178 to Shady Grove Road,” Bowers said. “But it makes more sense to bring those students to Hagood.”

Bowers said the committee determined that school facilities and mergers were top priorities. But Wilson said he felt closing schools wasn’t the best solution.

“It’s a difficult thing to close schools,” Wilson said.

What bothered Wilson, as well as trustee Alex Saitta, is the timeline given to the board for making such a decision. Both feel that next Monday night isn’t ample enough time for an issue that will dramatically affect students from three elementary schools, as well as the schools the displaced students will attend.

“In one week, you’re going to ask parents to come and give their input,” Wilson said. “I think we could impact the community in a better way.”

Saitta agreed, adding, “I think one week is too short. A variety of things have been talked about, and one week is too short.”

But school board chair Judy Edwards disagreed.

“There is a timeline, and the senior leadership team has been working on this for months, trying to determine where teachers will go,” Edwards said. “It’s extra space we’re not using, and it’s draining our budget.”

The school district will hold meetings for public input on the merger proposal at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at A.R. Lewis Elementary School, Holly Springs Elementary School and Ambler Elementary School. Members of the school district administration and board of trustees will be present at each meeting to present details of the merger proposal and hear concerns from the public.