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With schools closing, we must come together

Convenience or quality? That’s a choice for Fayette County parents, other taxpayers, and our Board of Education (BOE) as enrollments decline and the state signals fewer dollars and increased benefits costs for the next school year.

The county now has about 28 schools. Each is staffed with dedicated educators and their locations throughout the county make them convenient to just about every student.

But can we continue to keep them all open? Should we? Based on the latest Annual Report posted on the BOE website (2011), current enrollments fill a robust 90 percent of our high school capacity; that’s the good news.

Our total middle school enrollment uses only 73 percent of the collective capacity for those grades, and our elementary school capacity is utilized even less: 8,582 students in 12,676 seats — 71 percent.

For years, we’ve known that the BOE built too many schools, and we’ve been paying to staff and maintain them every year since they opened. Supporting those costs with a declining revenue stream can only erode the quality of education within those schools and across the county as a whole.

The school superintendent’s office has organized and listened to input from a very involved citizens’ committee, and the staff has crunched the numbers throughout weekends. We’ll have to forgo many teachers and parapros we’ve afforded in the past without state matching funds.

But [that] isn’t enough to fill the $15 million deficit in the coming year’s budget.

A menu of additional cost-cutting proposals is under consideration, but they don’t close the budget hole either.

BOE member Mary Kay Bacallao brainstormed 12 proposals in hopes they’d avert the closings. One runs afoul of Georgia law, one is budget neutral, a couple require more information (does Sandy Creek’s 7-period day require more staff?), and two appear to have some potential. Bacallao provides scant research to support her hopes that the remaining proposals will plug the gaping hole.

We’re now faced with the option no one wants, but must painfully accept: closing our most underutilized/costliest per-child schools. Unfortunately, that has the very real potential to significantly impact those communities, especially Tyrone and Brooks.

That triggers a follow-on challenge: what can we Fayette County citizens organizations, and businesses, do to help those children transition?

Without its cherished elementary school, how can we all support Brooks’ sense of community? How do we come together to support Fayetteville and Tyrone?

Be part of the solution to generate ideas and help implement the most promising among them.

Bob Ross

Peachtree City, Ga.

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