The turnout at Fayette County High School was heavy Aug. 30 at the first public meeting addressing possible school attendance boundaries that would need to be redrawn if the Fayette County Board of Education votes later this year to close several public schools.
The majority of the meeting was spent with small groups of parents meeting in multiple classrooms with members of the redistricting committee and giving their input on a variety of issues. While some did, many of the questions and concerns did not center on school boundaries, but rather on a number of other issues.
The school’s cafeteria was packed with more than 400 parents and community members as they first heard a presentation by Superintendent Jeff Bearden providing an overview of the economic and other conditions that led to the two current options for school closures. Those conditions were numerous.
Bearden in recent weeks laid out the imminent need to cut up to $20 million from the 2013-2014 budget that begins next July. Bearden on Thursday night referenced the decreasing student population, the large number of empty desks resulting from that decrease, the significant decreases in state and local revenues and the millions of dollars in cuts that have been made to the school system budget in recent years.
Bearden at a number of recent school board meetings has maintained that, aside from what will likely be many millions of dollars in a potential variety of personnel cuts, one of the few remaining areas to save money is with school closures.
And it is the potential for closing some of the county’s schools that led to the formation of a redistricting committee to make recommendations, not on school closures, but on what the school boundaries would look like if either of two school closure options is adopted by the school board later this year. The public meeting and the input from it represented the first step in making recommendations for the potential new boundaries.
Parents and others from the community retired to classrooms in groups of approximately 25 after Bearden’s presentation had concluded. It was in those settings that a variety of questions and concerns were voiced. Some referenced the topic of possible changes in school boundaries, though many of the comments dealt with issues other than school boundaries.
Once in the classrooms, redistricting committee members explained that their charge was first to get input on potential new school boundaries and then, in the coming weeks, to work on proposed boundaries for Option 1 followed proposals for Option 2.
The first option would close Fayette Middle School, Hood Avenue Primary and Fayetteville Intermediate and open Rivers Elementary to accommodate most of the children from the two elementary schools on Hood Avenue.
A second option would close Fayette Middle, close Tyrone Elementary and close Brooks Elementary, consolidate Fayetteville Intermediate and Hood Avenue administratively at the existing campus, leave Rivers as it is now serving some of the county special education students.
Committee members leading the discussion made it clear that their charge dealt only with matters pertaining to the redrawing of school boundaries. And while some of the questions and concerns centered on boundaries, many others dealt with a variety of other concerns ranging from school closures, to school system finances, to the need to address other financial issues rather than one that saves a lesser amount of money by closing schools.
A parent in one of the classrooms asked how high redistricting is on the school system’s agenda and whether it should apply to all schools or just those included in the two options.
A question by one group member that did apply to boundaries asked how long students could be on buses.
In another classroom, a parent asked why only schools in Fayetteville were targeted for closure in the initial recommendation by Bearden.
Another comment centered on school administrators. The parent said some Peachtree City schools, “... have more or had more administrators than other schools in the system. Maybe there is a need to look at reducing the number of administrators in some schools,” the man said.
Another parent asked why there was talk about closing schools when doing so would not come close to solving the school system’s financial problems.
A parent in another classroom asked how many schools redistricting would affect. The committee member in response said that answer is not yet known.
Parents in a number of classrooms appeared to all be from the same school or neighborhood. In some of those cases, they expressed the need to have the neighborhood all attend the same school.
In yet another classroom, one parent suggested that the school system look at the entire county, and not be hesitant to look at possible closures of schools in Peachtree City.
Committee members were also asked about going to a 4-day school week.
Another parent centered his comment on the school system as a whole and on the school board in particular. “The school board should spend money more wisely. It starts at the top. They spend a wagon-load of money and want more the next year,” the man said.
Bearden while in one of the classrooms suggested that the parents of children attending Fayetteville Intermediate and Hood Avenue Primary visit Rivers Elementary.
Once compiled in the next few days, the input from the meeting will be posted on the school system’s website at www.fcboe.org.
Though he did not go into detail at the meeting, Bearden last month provided a look at 14 potential cost-cutting measures that will be up for discussion later this year. Nearly all of the possible measures designed to cut up to $20 million in expenditures out of the budget involve personnel. Those cuts will likely be felt systemwide, far beyond the new boundaries that would be drawn if either one of the closure options is adopted in December.
The 14 potential cost-cutting measures included:
• Continue to maximize savings and efficiencies.
• Consider school closures and redistricting, as each closed school saves approximately $800,000.
• Outsource custodial services with anticipated savings of $1 million.
• Continue to reduce/combine county office positions through attrition. Bearden with this item noted that the school system currently spends $182 per student less than the state average on general administration. Citing an example, he said the school system is funded for six full-time assistant superintendent positions, but employs only one deputy superintendent and one assistant superintendent.
• Continue to reduce staff in all other categories through attrition, with cost savings dependent upon the number of positions reduced. Bearden said the school system currently employs 152 more positions than the state allocates, primarily teachers and counselors, adding that more than 200 certified staff positions have been reduced since FY 2007.
• Reduce the number of assistant principals to be more in line with the state funding formula for these positions. The school system currently employ 14 more assistant principals than the state allocates. The cost savings would be $1.2 million.
• Additional “shut down days” at a savings of $700,000 per day.
• Elimination of all 1st grade paraprofessionals, a savings of $1.2 million.
• Consolidation of bus routes.
• Reduce stipends for supplements.
• Eliminate all middle school athletics with a cost savings of $210,000.
• Salary decrease for all employees. Every 1 percent reduction in salary will save $1,325,000. Bearden noted that employees who spoke at a board meeting in the spring of 2011 overwhelmingly preferred “shut down” days to percentage decreases in salary.
• Consider a tuition policy that would allow students who live outside of Fayette County to attend Fayette schools. This policy can be written to ensure specific guidelines for acceptance, and how a student could lose the privilege of attending our schools.
• Consider asking citizens, through a referendum, for an increase in the current millage rate. Bearden in this cost-cutting suggestion noted that Fayette County property owners currently pay less in property taxes than they did several years ago.