Shifting Priorities & School Closings
By Alex Saitta
April 10, 2016
When the school board majority and district administration were discussing the closing of schools, I was asked numerous times, do they know what they are doing? I understand it looked that way too many, but when I thought about it I concluded the answer was yes, no and sometimes, depending on what you focused on.
Didnít Do Homework:
I attended the AR Lewis meeting (not as a presenter but in the audience and heard accounts of the other two meetings. There were many questions the board members and the administrators simply couldnít answer. Judy Edwards asking the public for solutions on TV when she and the rest of the board are hired to find solutions doesnít instill public confidence either. They had a general idea of step 1 ó close some schools, finally settling on their fourth plan and they had their reasoning down, but really didnít think much beyond step 1. They fumbled many of the step 2, 4 or step 8 questions.
The bottom line is when you present a plan this ground shaking, you already need to know the facts, the numbers, and be able to field most of the questions or challenges. As a professional debater once told me, Alex you want to be able to beat them over the head with all the facts and figures, if not at least bore them to death withíem. I agree they didnít do their homework, and it was obvious to most all.
Board members have different opinions and the majority rules. I opposed closing any schools. They wanted to close some. They had the votes, cast them and I accept that.
However, the way they went about it -- the process -- gets a big fat ďFĒ in my opinion, providing more evidence the board majority of Judy Edwards, Brian Swords, Phil Bowers and Herb Cooper along with Superintendent Dr. Merck didnít know what they were doing and were making it up as they were going along. Letís face it Dr. Merck has been the superintendent two years, Swords on the board two years and Bowers just one.
Initially they planned to have the recommendation come from the facilities committee February 6 and then go to a final board vote on February 8. And they were OK with that two day window. It wasnít until the powers higher up got involved, did the leadership announce the final vote would be put off for three plus weeks. The initial facility committee meetings were scheduled for Saturday morning at 6:30, 7:00 and 7:30. Following basic democratic principles, meetings should be scheduled on days and times when the public can most likely attend, not before sunrise on a Saturday. Board members and the district leadership were contacted by many, and too many reported their emails and phone calls were not answered. If you look at their Facebook pages, for the most part the board members tried to avoid the subject, provided little clarity and most of the public stumbled along, following in confusion. Days before the final vote, the board leadership was asked numerous times to change the venue of the meeting to a larger place, and they refused. The day of the meeting the fire marshal was notified by someone, and the capacity of the board room was cut way down. Citizens were locked out of the final vote. Thatís never happened before because past boards welcomed in all to attend. When a motion was made at the meeting to move next door to the Skelton Center where all could fit/ attend the meeting, it was voted down 4 to 2. Finally, a motion was made for public input before the final vote and it was voted down again 4 to 2 by Edwards-Bowers-Swords and Cooper. These are all practices the board followed in the past. Not this time.
Reversal In Course: Capacity
In this other instance, it may look like the new board majority and administration didnít know what it was doing, but when you look closer youíll see that was untrue. There has just been a reversal of what the board of 2006 set out to do, and given what the new board/ administration is now doing and it just looks to those looking at ďthe boardĒ no one knows what they are doing.
Iíll give you three examples of what I mean.
The 2006 board saw all those portable classrooms (110 of them) and built in a ton of extra capacity ó 38% more to insure the district wouldnít need portables for the next 20 years. It was an all-at-once building program and they couldnít predict where the extra capacity would be needed, so they added it everywhere.
Some areas simply have not seen growth in enrollment. The new board and administration looked at the system saw extra capacity (notably in Pickens), didnít live that same portables-all-over-the-place history, and wanted to close and reconfigure schools to wring out that extra capacity.
It was like one boss hired a person to dig a hole and the next day the new boss sees the hole and hires a guy to fill it in. Both bosses had a clear aim; they just didnít realize they were 180 degrees opposed and it looks foolish to those who regularly walk past the construction site.
The boards of 2006 to 2012 as well as the DíAndrea-Stewart-Hunt-Pew administrations saw the extra capacity as an insurance policy against portables. The board of 2014 and the Merck administration saw the extra capacity as a liability.
Reversal In Course: Maintain All
The previous boards said it was going to leave all the schools open, renovated them all, and then ended the building program. Enough building was done for a generation and the board of 2012 was making the transition from ending the building program to maintaining all buildings.
This new administration and board came in, not having lived that long history either, and pushed for new construction on top of the required maintenance of the buildings and was scrambling to pay for it all by closing some of the schools just renovated. Again, it doesnít make sense to me having been here the whole time, but Iím not steering the ship.
Reversal In Course: Configuration
The board of 2006 saw the 5th through 8th grade configuration at Liberty Middle and felt it was a problem mixing 5th grade students with 8th grade. Chastain Road Elementary was built get Liberty Middle back to the 6th to 8th or standard configuration like everywhere else in the district. It was a $16 million fix. The new board and administration paid no nevermind to a uniform configuration scheme and set out to make Dacusville Middle a 5th through 8th grade school. The next plan had Hagood becoming a K-2 and Pickens Elementary a 3-5 school. I argued that would open up the possibilities of all areas of the county requesting a special configuration for their schools. My pleas were ignored, but at the last minute public pressure was applied and the desire for a reconfiguration was pushed aside.