The parking lot at Fayette County High School was packed last night as hundreds of parents turned out Thursday night to hear details of potential school closings for the 2013-14 shool year.
The county school system is currently facing an $18-20 million deficit and has, since the spring, been looking at closing and reutilizing schools as a way to cut the budget.
Even Bearden agrees that it is going to take more than just closing schools to make up the money, as he told parents Thursday night.
So far, he noted, the board has tried any number of things- employees haven’t had COLA raises in years, they’ve shortened the school year, cut back on summer school days and even redialed the temperatures on schools during the summer. The helping hand the system had from the 2008 ESPLOST is at an end, though, cutting back on much needed funds. Another ESPLOST recommendation is in the works.
Another option Bearden has been putting forward to save money is the idea of having, for the first time, tuition-paying students allowed to attend Fayette County’s schools. Up until now, the board of education and the local community has been strongly opposed to the notion, but it may be one of the system’s last ditch efforts to raise funds before the 2013-14 school year is on them.
Fayette County’s growing population lured the system into what turned out to be a false sense of security when it came to building new schools, so that when the recession hit and affluent Fayette wasn’t drawing so many residents, the system was stuck with nearly empty schools and lots of land. Despite the fact that numbers show the school population may be stabilizing, with only 185 fewer students-- well under the 700 lost last year-- the system has lost some 2,000 students in the last four years and $25 million in revenue. Those numbers may go up or they may just stabilize as Labor Day passes since officials say there is usually a bit of fluctuation with students moving in and out of the county around that time.
“We also know that closing schools is an emotional issue and that’s why we wanted your input into the process,” Bearden told parents.
The district is considering two plans. The superintendent’s plan is to close Fayette Middle School, Fayette Intermediate School and Hood Avenue Elementary.
The second option open for discussion would also close schools in Brooks and Tyrone. Bearden estimates the district could save $800,000 for each school closure.
“The thing to remember, too, is that we’re not talking about closing underachieving schools. There are no underachieving schools in Fayette County. We have 28 schools and every one is a school of excellence.”
Bearden said they needed to be more efficient with assets in order to realize savings, but they also needed a plan for the facilities.
“The College and Career Academy idea has gotten a lot of traction in the community.”
He said he’d also been contacted by colleges and universities looking to rent space within the community, but there was nothing to offer.
Bearden said the centrally located schools could be used to house- and realize revenue from- the colleges who would not only be willing to pay for space but also to pay for the teachers who could become part of a career academy scenario.
The crowd was then broken up into small groups where they could share their ideas and concerns with individual community members.
With parents distributed into smaller working environments it appeared that the breakdown came, maybe unsurprisingly, along neighborhood lines, as residents made their way to the meeting in groups, sitting together and then moving forward.
Parents were mostly concerned with dividing neighborhoods, children traveling long distances to other schools and the possible financial impact closing Tyrone or Brooks elementary schools would have on the local economies. There was also concern about class sizes, since Fayette County has been fortunate to keep class size down.
Bearden said there would be two more public hearings after a plan has been selected to discuss redistricting and he’d like to have the process complete before the end of the year. He noted it would only be fair so that uncertified employees, teachers and para-pros would need to know if jobs were going to be cut and parents needed to know where their children would be going to school.
The bottom line, whoever, is quite literally the bottom line-- millions in cuts must come from somewhere and closing schools may only be the tip of the iceberg.