Residents concerned about plans for schools

Superintendent, board members:

Consolidation not on table for now

By Greg Oliver
Courtesy The Journal


EASLEY — The School District of Pickens County’s five-year plan for addressing capital needs has resulted in concerns among supporters of the county’s smallest schools and the Pickens County Taxpayers Association.

Representatives of both were among a packed house at Monday night’s regular monthly school board meeting and made up the vast majority of those signing up for public comment. Residents from the Ambler Elementary and A.R. Lewis Elementary attendance areas expressed concern over the 2020 Vision Plan presented Monday morning, which among other things states that consolidation “of inefficient school sites” be considered.

“School consolidation has, in my research, proven not to be a cost-effective measure for our students,” said Chad Keith, a supporter of A.R. Lewis Elementary School. “There are increased fuel costs, more wait time on school buses for children, more time to get home in the evening, growing maintenance demands, a larger population of students in one school, the need for additional personnel and a less favorable teacher-student ratio, resulting in lower grades and test scores.

“I believe that any school consolidation would be a big mistake.”

Linda Couch, also representing A.R. Lewis, agreed.

“My children went to school there — it was a fine school then and is a fine school now,” Couch said. “It would be a great injustice if the school was closed. The school excels, and something is being done right.”

The plan, formulated by a team of school administrators, parents and community leaders, lists the seven smallest schools in Pickens County — including Central Elementary, Holly Springs Elementary, Hagood Elementary, McKissick Elementary and Dacusville Middle in addition to Ambler and A.R. Lewis. The seven schools have less than 400 students each, with three having fewer than 250 students. They have a total square footage of 390,725 — more than the largest high school in the district. The plan says the schools have future capital needs totaling $6.1 million from 2015-17 and have an average general fund among the seven schools of $6,690 per student, while other district schools receive an average of $5,257 — with the three smallest schools receiving an average of $6,967 per pupil.

The plan recommends a facility efficiency study be conducted as soon as possible “before future capital needs planning is implemented” and says the capacity of each site be analyzed “compared to current enrollment trends.”

Although the plan adds that there is a potential savings of $1.2-$1.6 million by consolidating three or four schools, money that could be reallocated “for a more equitable future,” board members said at Monday night’s meeting they are not in favor of school consolidation.

The earliest that school consolidation would occur is 2016-17, according to officials. While the plan clearly states the study should be conducted before any capital needs planning takes place at the schools potentially affected, board member Alex Saitta questioned why the capital improvements plan for 2015-16 includes installation of a new air conditioner at Holly Springs Elementary — one of the seven schools affected.

“Do we want to put more heating, ventilation and cooling in schools that are being closed?” Saitta asked. “I sat here this morning (when the five-year plan was formally announced) and heard the potential for seven schools to be closed. Is the board going to come back a year from now and close schools after putting money into air conditioning?

“If we’re going to approve a plan to put $1.6 million in HVAC for these schools, I want to make sure we’re not going to close these schools. I for one don’t know why we would close those schools.”

Recently elected board member Phillip Bowers said he doesn’t want to see schools consolidated.

“I heard rumors, just like Alex and (board member Henry Wilson), but haven’t talked to a single board member that wants to close any school,” Bowers said.

Bowers then proposed the board make a motion not to close any schools. However, vice-chairman Judy Edwards and Wilson expressed caution.

“I don’t think we can make any motion not to do anything tonight,” Edwards said. “We’ve seen some things we’ve got to look at and need to see what is going to pass before we know what we’re going to do and what we need to fix. When we know how much money we’ve got, we’ll know what we can do.

“Some of you don’t want to raise taxes. Things have to be done, but it depends on how much money you’re going to get.”

Wilson said while no decision has been made, every option should be on the table when addressing the district’s budget woes while planning for the future.

“(The plan) doesn’t propose we close schools, but that we take a look and that we do it in concert with capital improvements,” Wilson said. “It would certainly be to our benefit to see what strategically is in our community and what the opportunities are for moving the district forward. For me, it’s like everything on the table. I don’t want to close schools, I don’t want to raise taxes but I want to do what is best for the School District of Pickens County.”

Wilson agreed with Saitta that any schools under consideration for consolidation shouldn’t receive improvements — including a new roof or air conditioning — until a final decision regarding their future is made.

Even residents who spoke out against a tax increase said they were not in favor of consolidating schools.

“A.R. Lewis is an excellent school, and I don’t think we’ve looked at what’s going to be required to move these students from one school to another,” Junius Smith said.

But Smith railed against the plan, saying, “The plan brought forth features no conservatives and five businesses that pay a fee in lieu of taxes. There are some serious things wrong with this school board — you have taken unconstitutional actions, ignored SCAGO (South Carolina Association of Governmental Organizations, formed with the primary objective of promoting financing and investment opportunities to benefit South Carolina’s Public School Districts), voted on issues that directly affected you, overcharged taxes and so forth.”

Jim Wilkie, a taxpayer, said the cheerleaders for the tax increase “seem to have a natural aversion to low taxes.”

“They’re now taking to vilifying those in support of low taxes — saying they are against teachers, students and education,” Wilkie said, pleading for the board to “Please manage. Don’t tax.”

Bob Brookover said while he supports the plan, he feels it isn’t aggressive enough to achieve what needs to be done for schools in Pickens County. He added that the district going 10 years without imposing a tax increase “is not being fiscally responsible.”

“I hope you will consider being more aggressive,” Brookover said. “I would hope in five years we don’t go back to our old ways, but school consolidations and school closures and reducing classroom sizes needs to be our last resort.”

Retired Baptist Easley hospital administrator Roddy Gettys, who served 43 years at the facility, spent 35 of those recruiting physicians. He said one of the determining factors for many physicians when moving into the area involved infrastructure that included the school system — something Gettys was not proud to display, since facilities were in such poor condition for so long.

“We recruited some good physicians but missed out on some other good ones because we didn’t have the infrastructure,” Gettys said. “But you did what you did and make it happen. Sometimes, you’ve got to step out and do your job as school board members to create a great learning experience for the children of Pickens County. You’ve got to stick your neck out, and if you need the money, get it, because the kids deserve it.”

School district superintendent Danny Merck said there were three options available to board members, and the $5.8 million proposed represents the most moderate of the three. That option includes $2.8 million to increase operating millage with a look back in year one, $1 million for a five-year increase in the staffing ratio of 22.5:1 pupil-teacher ratio, $800,000 for utilizing two-thirds of TIF money for the operations budget over five years, $1.2 million, using $400,000 in overhead costs at each site, if a facility review concludes there are any inefficient schools, and consolidation of three schools over five years.

“There has not been the recommendation of anyone to close these schools,” Merck said in addressing consolidation fears.

Merck said the plan would result in a millage increase of $20 per year on a $100,000 home.

The first reading was conducted Monday night, with second reading Dec. 1 and third and final reading Dec. 15.

The superintendent said board memberscould vote to increase the $5.8 million up to $11 million if they chose to do so and “tax, tax, tax.” But he said the best avenue is through a balanced approach that requires mutual sacrifice from the school district and taxpayers.

“We can’t have an extremist mindset, because if we work together, we can benefit everyone,” Merck said. “We’re not hiding anything, and I realize you can’t make everybody happy in this room. I’m hearing it from taxes, I’m hearing it from closing schools, I’m hearing it from STEP increases. All I know to do is tackle it with a five-year plan. Be honest, speak the truth in love and do the best we can.

“There is a balance, and how far do we go with the balance through attrition, taxes and such? All that is on the table because we want to think long-term in our hopes of being a top-five school district. It’s not going to be an easy discussion, but let’s not kill each other. We’re Pickens County and we love each other despite our opinions.”

Saitta said all three choices are bad, adding that it amounts to a 13-mill tax increase when including an 8.5-mill tax increase on operations in addition to the 5-mill increase to borrow the $5.8 million.

“The board should take the administration’s list of wants and needs and scrub it down to just the needs, then the board should focus on cutting excess spending and waste in the system that will not harm students,” Saitta said. “I think the district is aiming for another tax increase and made the other two choices so unappetizing the board is being pigeonholed into raising tax rates 13 mills.

“I’m urging the board to look at other options and better choices that are out there.”

Board chairman Brian Swords said the first order of business is to develop a strategic plan for moving the district forward.

“Every business has a strategic plan — you can’t have a business with 2,000 employees and a $112 million budget and not have some type of plan,” Swords said. “A lot of the work has been done, but we just need to complete it together. AdvancED requires us to have an instructional strategic plan, and after an initial meeting we’ll get to finally put things together, and I think you’ll see some decisions coming together pretty soon.”

The board of trustees’ ad hoc committee is meeting this morning in Easley to begin drafting a plan for the vision of the district. | (864) 973-6687

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