Thoughts on proposed school closings

I don’t know whose cockamamie idea it was to close the three so-called “mountain schools,” but whoever it was, they literally don’t know what they are doing. I mean that literally, because obviously they are only thinking in terms of a quick and easy solution to their dilemma of either raising the millage rate or finding some other way of paying the school district’s bills.

What they have almost certainly not stopped to realize is that closing a school like Holly Springs Elementary will be the end of a community that has persisted for more than a hundred years. Folks in this remote area of the county are connected with their friends and neighbors in three different ways: through family connections, through the church where they worship and finally through the school where their children attend for the first six formative years of their educational career.

Dennis ChastainOf those three ways that people in this community are connected, it is the school that forms the very core of the communal relationship. People sometimes go to church outside the community, family is sometimes scattered all over the country, but the school, Holly Springs Elementary School, since its humble beginning in a log structure where our fire department now stands, has always been the thing that brought our whole community together in ways that no other institution can. Personal relationships that begin either as a parent or a student at Holly Springs Elementary often last a lifetime, and taken together those relationships form the core connection between people that defines our community.

Thank goodness the school district cannot do anything to destroy family relations, thank goodness they cannot determine where people worship, but the tragedy here is that they can with something as slight as a lifted hand at the appointed time destroy something that has bound successive generations of folks in this tight-knit community for more than a century. And that, my friends, is more than just a shame — it is bona fide, damnable tragedy of historic proportions. If they close this school, the community that many of us have known for pretty much all our lives will be no more. The ties that bind will have been forever broken.

Let me see if I can put what I am saying in perspective. My 90-year-old father died about this time last year. He attended Holly Springs Elementary when he was 6 years old in 1930, as did his father before him, and he was only one of five generations of our extended family who attended Holly Springs from the time the school was first established in the 1800s to this very day. My wife, Jane, retired a few years ago after teaching kindergarten at Holly Springs for 31 years. By the time she was approaching retirement, she was teaching the children of the children she had taught in kindergarten in the 1980s. That, my friend, is a rare thing — a thing that has all but disappeared from our disconnected, highly mobile modern society.

To do away with that in one fell swoop without due consideration of the profound and lasting impact on the children and families affected and without exhausting all the alternatives is more than a dereliction of duty — it would be a human tragedy at several different levels. Step back, slow down, take a deep breath and consider the ramifications of what you are about to do. There are other options.

The Pickens County School District Board of Trustees has a short window of opportunity to redeem itself. I say “redeem itself” because in the recent past the board has embarrassed itself and brought shame to the good people of Pickens County schools by putting the school district’s accreditation at risk for reasons that are too embarrassing to recount, and now they have shirked their sworn duty to responsibly manage the finances of the district by trying to solve their economic woes by way of the half-baked, ill-advised idea of closing the three mountain schools.

To be sure, no one should paint the school board with a broad brush. Two trustees are fore-square against the closings, and two trustees have wisely reserved judgment on the issue of closing the mountain schools as a short-term solution to their long-range economic deficit. Hopefully, those trustees will step forward and do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

Based on what I have been able to glean from district documents, newspaper accounts and several informed sources, here’s what is really going on. Despite the fact that they don’t have sufficient projected revenues for maintenance of their existing facilities, the board has
embarked on an ambitious program of facility additions, realignment and renovations, with no realistic plan for how to pay for it. They paid a consultant $50,000 for a facilities plan, which made three recommendations, none of which involved closing the mountain schools.

The fact that two of the consultant’s three options involved closing Hagood Elementary sent shockwaves through the Hagood school community, which in turn mounted an effective campaign and put an abrupt end to that. Then a totally different idea emerged, and they turned their sights on the three mountain schools. Apparently they assumed or hoped that those folks would not be as passionate and organized as those at Hagood. But just in case they were wrong, they gave advocates of keeping the schools open only seven days to react. So they dropped that bomb on a Monday, with the admonition that the final, possibly fatal, vote would be held the following Monday. That ought to do it.

Well, it didn’t exactly turn out that way. The parents, students and community leaders of the three schools turned out in truly impressive numbers at the hastily organized school meetings to plead their case. Board members and district officials heard heart-rending accounts of how devastating the loss of their longstanding community schools would be for the children and the communities themselves. They saw school children shedding tears at the meetings and on TV. They listened to hundreds of phone calls from sometimes angry and sometimes somber parents with touching stories of how wonderful their school’s teachers, faculty and staff had made all the difference in their children’s lives. They pleaded with the board to look at other options. The board’s concession for all this was to postpone the vote one week.

In my humble opinion, the board needs to do three things: First, even though some current board members were not involved, the board needs to humbly and openly apologize to the people of Pickens County for the board’s prior shenanigans, which placed the school district’s accreditation at risk. Second, they need to abandon the plan to close schools and fess up to the residents of Pickens County that closing the three mountain schools is only one step in making similar facility changes all across the county. Look out Clemson, Six Mile, Central, Liberty and Easley. You are next. And finally, they need to roll up their sleeves and find a way to pay their bills. Call in whatever outside help you need to help organize priorities and get real about what you can and cannot do with the resources you have. But for right now, the only cost savings by facility closing I am interested in is how much the district would save by closing the Curtis A. Sidden District Administration office building and letting the board conduct its affairs in a portable out back in the parking lot.

Pickens native Dennis Chastain is an award-winning outdoors writer and naturalist.