Officials discuss closure criteria

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Superintendent Dana Bedden emphasized the educational goals of the process.

Discussion began Thursday night as to what the future of education in Richmond County should look like and how the school system's facilities will need to evolve to fit this vision.

Although school officials downplayed the idea, the lengthy "rightsizing" process is a means to implement recommendations from an MGT of America audit in March, which called for the closing of at least five schools.

The audit found that the school system is under-enrolled by 6,000 schoolchildren, but Superintendent Dana Bedden pointed community members who participated in Thursday's focus group to the educational goals of the rightsizing process.

"The Richmond County school system is trying to review or revise its school facilities and usage due to demographic shifts and enrollment declines, but most importantly for the delivery of the future of educational plans," Dr. Bedden said. "That last line trumps everything else. That is the driving force behind everything."

The rightsizing process should also save money and make the school system more efficient, he added.

The MGT of America audit recommended that at minimum three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school be closed for a savings of $11.7 million. This money, the audit suggested, could in turn be reinvested into the remaining schools to improve them academically.

Thursday, the focus group developed guidelines for the school board to consider when rightsizing. The focus group favors those facilities that are adequately and equitably funded, are small and neighborhood-based, incorporate the business and industry sectors and are utilized sufficiently.

The board must adopt the final criteria for the process, which will be slow and methodical, said Bill Montgomery, a consultant with Absolute Technology Inc., the company assisting with rightsizing.

Rightsizing and closing schools are always politically sensitive issues, Cynthia Searcy, an assistant professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, told The Augusta Chronicle on Thursday.

Five of 10 board members are up for re-election this year. Two of them face opposition in November's election. Parents, particularly, oppose closing schools, preferring to have schools closer by, Dr. Searcy said.

The closing of schools raises other issues, she said. There are the challenges of moving staff and teachers, the additional transportation expenses and other intangible costs, such as the possibility of lower morale among students and employees.

"You can always sell school closings as a good thing," Dr. Searcy said. "These school districts are under tight (financial) constraints, particularly if enrollment is declining."

There can be considerable savings from lower infrastructure costs and the economies of scale, Dr. Searcy said.

Richmond County officials stressed the process will be lengthy, adding that the federal courts must sign off before any schools are closed or any attendance zones change.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.

GUIDING PRINCIPLES

1. The development of a facility plan that is responsive to educational needs of the students and related instructional programs.

2. Plan for the optimum utilization of existing facilities and ensuring that over-building does not occur.

3. Accurate student demographic information that ensures the new facilities are located in appropriate areas of the school system and are designed for optimum capacity.

4. A clear understanding of the safety and the security needs of a contemporary educational setting.

Source: Superintendent Dana Bedden