Educators and community members on Tuesday took the first step in reorganizing school facilities in Richmond County by discussing what kind of role schools should play in a neighborhood, and how they should be maintained.
A roughly 50-member focus group answered questions about what they want to see in the educational climate, facilities and operations so Philadelphia-based Montgomery Education Consultants can develop suggestions about which schools could potentially consolidate, merge or close.
The “rightsizing” process is needed about every five years to adjust facilities for enrollment shifts and changes in building usage, according to Richmond County Board of Education attorney Pete Fletcher.
“Year to year, people will move so some schools will have less students, some will have more,” Fletcher said. “Even if the student population is not changing, it’s always shifting.”
The consulting group will combine feedback from Tuesday’s focus group with data collected on student enrollment, housing and zoning trends and birth rates to create profiles on how efficiently each building is being utilized. They will develop suggestions for changes by January, and could adopt a plan after another community meeting and board approval in February.
The group was in almost unanimous agreement about the need to provide equitable funding for all schools, and to maintain safety. Opinions were more spread out on whether schools should be in walking distance for children, how long the school system should maintain buildings and whether or not schools should be made available for community use after hours.
No schools were specifically called out as candidates for closure Tuesday. However, board member Jack Padgett said with severe state funding cuts and some buildings being currently under-enrolled, consolidations are inevitable.
He pointed to how the impending demolition of the Cherry Tree Crossing public housing complex could leave the Collins K-8 School almost empty. He also said Southside Elementary School’s unfortunate location next to a train track and highway makes it a candidate for change.
“At some point we’ve got to live within our means,” Padgett said. “I don’t see how we can get by without closing two or three schools.”
These decisions will be made next year, when five board members are up for re-election.Board member Alex Howard said politics should be kept out of it. He said the suggestions may be difficult to hear – but they are necessary to stay financially stable.
“We need to do what they’re telling us to do, not what’s going to get us back in office,” Howard said.
The school system last took Bill Montgomery’s advice in 2008, when the district closed Tubman Middle School and dispersed the students. In 1996, the district consolidated six schools into three and built new buildings with the first round of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Montgomery said school closures can be a complicated process, but a necessary one for districts to use money wisely.
“This is always an emotional issue, but in order to get better use of your dollar, you have to be smaller and stronger,” he said.
Once Montgomery has finished collecting data and creating school profiles, the focus group can take a closer look at options for changes. Until then, Augusta businessman James Kendrick, who joined the focus group from the Chamber of Commerce, said the group will have to wait and see.
“Our job is to make sure the taxpayers are getting every dollar worth and the educational needs of the children are being met,” he said. “If we get that, I’ll be a happy man.”