The school system has cut millions from its operating budget over the past three years, eliminating unfilled positions and even laying off teachers and other workers. The board eliminated local pay supplements from the budget and got rid of music and art programs.
“We’re just bare bones,” said Schools Superintendent Rick Higginbotham.
Just last year, the school board trimmed spending by $4.8 million. To save on transportation and other costs, Elbert even adopted a four-day school week to mixed reviews from parents and students. Some say they like it because they have more time with their children, while others say it increases their child-care costs and believe the longer school days make it harder for students to learn.
Elbert County teachers must also take 10 nonpaid furlough days this year.
The board has kept the county’s tax rate the same for the past several years at 15.96 mils.
And now the system has to cut even more from operating costs — about $1.8 million before the next school year, Higginbotham estimates.
A hike in health insurance costs, longevity pay increases for teachers and other increased costs will tack on about $1.6 million to next year’s budget, he said. And Elbert administrators also expect to get about $200,000 less from the state next year in so-called state “equalization grants” designed to help poorer school districts pay the bills.
“We’re in a difficult situation,” Higginbotham said. “I really don’t want to close any schools. This breaks my heart.”
Every school district has struggled to make ends meet when state lawmakers cut back on school spending during the past three years.
But Elbert County’s financial straits are more dire than most.
Elbert County’s jobless rate is one of the highest in the state. Even the Burger King in Elberton shut down last year.
People have been leaving the county in search of work, taking their children with them, Higginbotham said.
A successful campaign to reduce births to teen mothers has also cut school enrollment, he said.
“Four years ago we started the year at the high school with 1,124 students; this year we started with 860,” Higginbotham said.
Overall, from pre-K through 12th grade, the county’s school enrollment has dropped 660 students over the past five years, Higginbotham said.
And as enrollment drops, the state sends less money, because state funding is based on the number of students.
But consolidating the schools will not only save money, but improve education for the county’s children, Higginbotham tells parents.
All five of the county’s elementary schools have fewer than 450 students, a state minimum size a school must reach to qualify for state funding to hire counselors and assistant principals, for example.
Consolidation would also save enough money to allow the county to return to a five-day school week, he said.
The county’s board of education hasn’t yet made a decision on whether to close any elementary schools.
“Nothing’s a done deal. I’m still looking at every possible scenario,” Higginbotham said.
But that’s little reassurance to parents at Beaverdam and Bowman elementary schools, which could be shut down.
For one Beaverdam parent, closing the school would mean her daughters would be attending different schools, she said.
Under the reorganization plan, all or most of the children at any one grade level would be in the same building — and fifth-graders would be in the same building with the middle school grades six, seven, and eight.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for children that young (fifth-grade) to be riding on the bus with the older kids,” said the Beaverdam mother.
Bowman parent Scott Harpold said he and other parents are likely to enroll their children in another county if Bowman Elementary closes.
Instead of attending classes nearby, his children will be assigned to schools 13 miles further away in Elberton if Bowman Elementary shuts down, said Harpold, who questions whether the school system would really save much by closing Bowman Elementary.
His main objection is the increased time his children would spend riding a bus back and forth to Elberton, he said.
“I’m going to take them to Franklin County or somewhere closer. I’m not willing to lose that much time with my children,” Harpold said.
Bowman parents have presented an alternate cost-saving plan, keeping Bowman Elementary open. The school board is scheduled to talk about the plan at a Feb. 28 meeting.
But some fear that the school board may close the school anyway.
“We want Bowman Elementary School to stay open, but we also understand the hard realities of the budget,” said Bowman Elementary PTO president Bethany Booth.