Ralling Together

Nicole Daughhetee/Courier

Former Easley High School principal Bill Houston addresses community members at a meeting scheduled last week to discuss the future of Easley-area schools.

Easley community members meet to discuss educational future in wake of SDPC middle school decision

By Nicole Daughhetee, Courier Staff

Setting the Stage

During the May 28 meeting of the School District of Pickens County’s board of trustees, five of six members voted to terminate a contract with HG Reynolds for the Gettys Middle School renovation and to combine budgets in order to finish Brice Middle, effectively killing a plan for the city of Easley to be home to two middle schools.

On Tuesday, June 18, roughly 185 members of the Easley community, including mayor Larry Bagwell, Bill Thompson, former SDPC board trustee Kevin Kay, Gettys principal Mike Corey, and current school board trustees Judy Edwards and Ben Trotter, met in the Easley High School auditorium to discuss how best to solve the problem of educating 1,350 children in one school building that was constructed to house only 750 students.

Audience members were informed that not only were they facing the dilemma of how to convince board trustees to fulfill their promise to construct two middle schools for the Easley attendance area, but also the probability that the $9.3 million in funding that could be utilized to complete the project had been mismanaged to the point that it no longer exists as a possibility.

It would be remiss, here, if the following side notes were not included: Bob Folkman, former SDPC building program director for the SDPC, was mentioned many times during the public forum at EHS. Folkman, who has taken a new position with Dorchester School District Two, was originally set to continue part-time with the SDPC until the beginning of the school year in August. According to SDPC spokesman John Eby, Folkman is no longer with the district. As of press time, attempts to reach Folkman have been unsuccessful.

Eby was not in attendance during the June 18 meeting at EHS, however, I was able to speak with him, allowing him the opportunity to comment on the issues and concerns raised by the public in Easley. Eby’s responses have been included in this article.


A Search for Answers Seems to Create More Questions

Easley Mayor Larry Bagwell opened the public forum saying, “I learned today we have four floating teachers at Easley High and that the school district still owes us four more classrooms here,” said Bagwell. “We are growing, and it isn’t going to slow down. I feel like we are being held back by a block on the board.”

According to Eby, the four floating teachers that Bagwell referred to are part-time teachers.

“The school was built with enough space for all of the students and classes they serve,” Eby said. “They aren’t having students sitting out the in hallway because there isn’t enough room.”

Bill Houston, a former educator and principal in Easley, offered a brief history lesson on the building program.

“In December 2006, the Pickens County school district began a school building program designed to provide the resources needed to educate the children of Pickens County. As the program progressed, a second middle school in Easley became an option,” said Houston. “In September 2010, the SDPC issued a one-year bond to purchase classroom technology and additional funds to renovate both the old Easley High and Gettys Middle School, creating two equal middle schools.

“On May 28 of this year, the school district said due to cost it would not complete renovation at both middle schools, and they decided to keep just one middle school in Easley. And that was after Brice Middle School was renovated for 750 students. The children of Easley face a crowded future with unequal access to education, the arts and athletic opportunities,” he said. “With only one renovated middle school, Easley’s children will be attending a middle school with a crowded population of 1,350 students with barely little or no room to grow.

“Easley has 400 apartments either permitted or under construction with the possibility of more to come. Easley’s population has grown at a faster rate — 11 percent — than the rest of the county since the last census,” said Houston. “The question is shouldn’t our students attend schools on par with other schools in the district? Why should the average middle school in the rest of Pickens County hold 500 students and Easley’s middle school will hold 1,350?”

Eby pointed out that the campus, during its time as Easley High School, housed some 1,600 students.

“They are still in a better situation than they were (at Gettys),” he said. “Certain people in Easley are really upset about it, but most people are happy that they are going to have a nice, lovely school. They are going to have one middle school. All the kids are going to have one equally nice school.”

“Easley is facing a future of one middle school for 1,400 students on a campus that was renovated for 750 students. In my 36 years serving this community in education, the greatest decision this school board has ever made is when they voted to create two middle schools,” Houston said. “Now we’re here at the very end. If they don’t have the money, I want to know why. Where has the money gone? When someone mentions a $3 million overrun in the Easley area, where did it go? 1,400 students in a building that was renovated for 750 is going to be a nightmare.”


SDPC Board Chair Judy Edwards Addresses Public

School board chair Judy Edwards was asked many difficult questions by a group of concerned parents and members of the Easley community seeking answers at the public forum.

“We have reached the end of the building program, and I feel like the board is going to have to take some blame for the fact that the board is short on money,” Edwards said. “We had a person who was over the building program, and at every meeting we were told that the building program was on time and on budget. ‘We are on time and we are on budget.’ We did not ask for figures. We should have. We accepted when we were told we were on time and on budget. When we got to the end, we found out we’re not in budget. Last meeting we said we had $9.3 million left. We don’t.”

This statement has left many people wondering where all that money went.

“Is there enough with that and interest earned to do the two schools? I don’t know at this point. Possibly. Possibly not,” Edwards said. “(Superintendent Dr. Kelly Pew) is investigating. The money is not missing. It was just spent in other places. And it was double spent sometimes.

“Mr. Bob Folkman was the head of our building program, and I’ll be frank with you, I have bragged on him so many times it’s unreal because he came in and he got our building program started, he got us going, he got us in budget, and we were for a while. Now things have happened.”

Eby later confirmed what Edwards shared with the public in Easley.

“There was an assumption that some costs were covered. Things were (marked) paid when they were not,” he said. “Money was spent that had been marked for other things. We are in the process of tracking each statement to see how much money is left in the building program. … We are in the process of tracking down what invoices have left to come in and which ones have already been paid.

“We’re not sure that we do have the money. We have to track down every single invoice. Going forward, until we know how much money we have left, it would not be wise to spend anything.”

Ken Porter, from Ft. Hill Natural Gas, which is housed directly across from the Brice campus, said, “I’m very surprised and disappointed to learn that $365 million was being spent but that no one really had a handle on where that money was going. I have a hard time understanding how you can go into something this significant for this county — nearly $370 million that is going to be expended over a period of time — and nobody in charge has a handle on it. That is a big concern of mine.”


Has Easley Been Shortchanged?

The consensus of members of the Easley community is that they are being cheated out of the second middle school they were promised. Many people at the meeting were left wondering how such huge sums of money were not properly accounted for — how is it possible that these funds were so grossly mismanaged?

There are also a number of people who believe that Easley, an area in Pickens County that has the highest percentage of students and tax base in the SDPC, is being forced to feast on scraps while other areas in the district are being lavished with huge slices of the building program pie.

Former school board member Kevin Kay shared some facts and figures with those Easley community members in attendance.

“I want you to pay particular attention to the students in the attendance zones and the percentage of the money spent in each attendance zone. Daniel has 21 percent of the students and 18 percent of the money spent at Daniel. Liberty has 14 percent of the students and 18 percent of the money. Pickens has 28 percent of the students and 29 percent of the money. Almost 1/3 of the money has been spent in Pickens,” Kay explained. “When you look at Easley, we are 37 percent of the students and only 23 percent of the money. Easley has footed the bill for the entire district in this process.”

“Easley is getting shortchanged in all of this,” said Kay. “I am just learning tonight that the $9.3 million might not be $9.3 million. I don’t understand how that could happen. There was $9.3 million budgeted to complete the Gettys renovation. From the beginning of the building project, $55,784,000 has been earned in interest; $46,442,000 has been spent on other projects in the district. There is $9.3 million left. Why can’t that be spent in Easley to give us two schools?”


Paramount Issue — Easley Needs Two Middle Schools

Many of those who vocalized their concerns focused on the fact that 1,400 students are being put into one middle school designed to house 750 students. Less concerned about aesthetics, about the haves and have-nots, their primary focus is that Easley’s students receive a quality education.

One parent of a Gettys student painted the following picture of class changes during the school days.

“It was like I was in a stampede. Like someone just walked up and kicked over an ant pile and millions of ants come out and they are all over the place,” the parent said. “It took me two or three minutes to walk 30 feet just to get out of that building. It blows my mind the thought process and the logic the school board has used to say all we need is a wing with 20 extra classes. How is that going to close the gap of an additional 700 students?”

“I want this district to be given what was voted on and what was promised,” community member David Cantrell said. “The fact of the matter is, they voted to put two schools in Easley. They did that because it is in the best interest of our children. It is not in the best interest of our children to be in a school of 1,350 students. When you have something promised and then it is changed without due deliberation, consideration or hearing the voice of the public, I think that’s wrong. I want the two schools that were promised, because it is in the best interest of the children in Easley.”

Another member of the Easley community weighed in as well.

“We are in the 11th hour of this, and it is a very drastic change,” he said. “I’m just amazed that we are at the point where we’re thinking that a school that was renovated for 700 students, we’re going to plop down another wing and make it now work for 1,400, and that doesn’t even take into account any growth in the future. I don’t think any of that has been even close to thought through.”

Houston shared his extensive research on the connection between smaller schools and educational achievement. According to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, middle school-aged students perform better and have higher achievement in smaller, more nurturing environments, he said, adding that they have more opportunities in smaller schools than they will in one school packed with 1,400 students.

Bill Robinson, a long-standing member of the Easley community, singled out SDPC board trustee Alex Saitta as the major obstacle to the second middle school in Easley.

“The recommendation to proceed with the sale of the bond to provide adequate funding for a second middle school in Easley carried unanimously except for Mr. Saitta. He voted against it. Mr. Saitta has always been opposed to any money being spent on the schools,” said Robinson. “One person has managed to depreciate the school system, denigrate the education in Pickens County and is proud of it.”


Where Does Easley Go from Here?

Robinson said he thinks the school district should stand by the original plan for two middle schools in Easley.

“I think that the school board has a moral obligation to go by what it says, and I’m a lawyer, so if someone will hire me I’ll take them to court and make them fulfill their obligation,” Robinson said. “The purpose of the buildings is to educate our children. We don’t pay enough taxes in Pickens County to educate our children. The school board should cease and desist from any further expenditure on any of the schools; if they have missed it so much that they are $30 million off schedule, somebody didn’t know what they were doing.”

Bagwell and Houston have both suggested that, at this point, what might be best for the people of Easley is to begin their own school district — separate from the SDPC.

“(Senator) Larry Martin told me he called Alex Saitta. He said ‘I told (Saitta) you should not have surprised the people of Easley with your decision. That was a crucial point,’” explained Bagwell. “The second thing Martin says is why can’t Gettys be built in installations? He said the front that is going to cost lots of money could be added later.”

Eby responded to talk of Easley starting its own school district.

“We are very confident that a unified school district would better serve the students and taxpayers of Pickens County,” Eby said. “Easley is best served being part of a countywide district. Easley would incur a lot of costs — money that would have to pay for an administration, teacher salaries, buildings and they would lose access to benefits like the Career and Technology Center.”


This is Going to be a Fight for Easley

Edwards stood before the Easley community at the public forum and explained that the plan this year, even if the district had continued with Gettys, was to take all the students to Brice — with portables — so that they would be out of the construction area and Gettys would be completely empty so construction could commence safely.

“So we will continue that plan, and all the students will go to Brice with portables, and the wing will be built to accommodate more of the students,” she said. “It’s going to be more classrooms, but more than that has got to be done. What we’re working on is how we’re going to fit them. How we’re going to get them all on the campus, I don’t know.

“Did we know everything it was going to cost to do Brice to fit 1,400 students? No. And we still don’t know everything. We knew completing the two middle schools was going to take more money than we had.”

Eby said that a $5 million cost presented to the board recently was only for a new wing at Brice.

“Any remaining building program funds would be used to update Brice,” he said. “It is far less costly than renovating Gettys.”

Edwards says she is prepared and knows it is going to be a fight to make certain that the students in Easley have everything they need to be safe and receive the quality education they deserve.

“I have said it many, many times and if you were at the last meeting I tried to tell Mr. Saitta, we need more space at Brice,” she said. “It’s going to be a fight (at Monday night’s school board meeting) to get the money to do that.”