While many people were spending their Valentine's Day evening with that special someone, some Fayette County parents were spending it with the Board of Education at Sams Auditorium. For as many meetings as have been held regarding school closures, it seems there are few new cases to be made, but that has not shortened the lines for public comments. Whether the four schools on the table--Fayette Intermediate, Fayette Middle, Brooks and Tyrone--are closed or not, the floods of e-mails directed to the board and the comments made at these meetings add to the weight of the board's impending decision.
Thursday's meeting was one of two public forums, opportunities for anyone to sign up and give their perspectives to the school board. Over twenty five people spoke, bringing up familiar issues from the long bus routes for Brooks students to the potential economic impact on Fayetteville, Tyrone, and Brooks, especially in real estate and business recruitment. Particularly in the case of Brooks and Tyrone, many have said the closure of those "community schools" would be "devastating" to the communities as a whole.
While none of the school board members or staff spoke Thursday, Interim Superintendent Dan Colwell addressed some of the frequently raised concerns.
One of the obvious questions in closing any school is what is to be done with the empty buildings?
Colwell says Fayette Intermediate as well as Fayette Middle could likely be repurposed for other county needs. As a potential deal for the sale of Rivers Elementary looms, the Fayette Middle facility in particular could serve the special education students that are currently at Rivers. Colwell also said the current Board of Education building has market value and has drawn some interest, so potentially it could be sold and the system's central offices and school board could be moved to the Fayette Middle building.
As for Brooks and Tyrone buildings, Colwell said ideally they would be kept "in our inventory" in case those communities do see some growth and the need for those schools returns. He said agreements with those communities could be worked out so that the facilities could be used for various activities at no charge. Colwell thinks "there's a chance [the towns of Brooks and Tyrone] would have a use for them. If not we'd look at other entities."
As for the widely asserted belief that closing schools will hurt housing markets and economic prospects, Colwell said he's heard those arguments but says there is no research that clearly indicates it would. He went on to say that the recently announced plans for a movie studio would hopefully bring some economic stimulus associated with the film industry. He clarified, though, that even if growth is assumed the system has an excess of classrooms.
"The fact remains that we still have a good bit of capacity even after closing four schools, so our system can accommodate some growth," Colwell said.
Realtor Steven Walker spoke on the night and said that the activity he's seeing indicates that growth is coming. While much of the focus has been on Brooks and Tyrone, Walker argued that closing the Fayetteville schools should not be taken lightly either, saying "Fayetteville is the heart of the county. If we're going to close half the schools in Fayetteville, people aren't going to come to the market."
Another common request to the board is to find creative solutions to trim costs from the budget, but Colwell said not closing schools leaves essentially one option: cut more personnel. Cuts of over two hundred administrative, teaching, and parapro positions are already expected to account for over $11 million of the approximately $15 million gap that has to be closed. Without the $3.2 million saved from closing schools, Colwell said the system would have to make more cuts or take the risk of having "no fund balance at all," putting the system "in a very precarious position."
Another frustration that was raised a few times on Thursday was the lack of any Peachtree City school on the closure list. One mother said, "we're a little upset that Peachtree City schools never get touched."
Colwell said the schools currently on the list were put there for good reasons.
"These are three of our smallest elementary schools and one of the smallest middle schools, as well as three of our oldest and lowest capacity buildings. Population is dwindling in those schools. They were not arbitrarily chosen," Colwell said.
In addition to some of those practical concerns, a number of speakers have been adamant that the redeeming qualities of "community schools" go well beyond anything traceable to a spread sheet. Brooks Mayor Dan Langford may have summed it up best with this anecdote about a Brooks Elementary teacher he'd run into that night before the meeting:
"Linda taught both of our boys at Brooks Elementary. Linda and her brother were taught by my grandmother at Brooks Elementary. Both of Linda's parents were taught by my grandmother at Brooks Elementary. Linda's mother taught my father at Brook's Elementary. That's an emotional thing. There is not a dollar or cent thing you can put on that because it's priceless. That's what community schools are about."
The board will continue to weigh tangible budget savings against those intangible community values that many feel these schools represent.
The second of two public hearings on school closures will take place on Feb. 25.