02/11/09 — Money, space prompt plans for schools

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Money, space prompt plans for schools

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 11, 2009 1:46 PM

The proposed reorganization of four Wayne County public schools in the fall was prompted by two things, officials say -- the faltering economy and better use of existing space.

The school board was briefed on the possible changes at its Monday night meeting, after being asked to consider moving the fifth grade from Carver Elementary to Mount Olive Middle School. Other recommendations were also mentioned -- merging Goldsboro Intermediate and Dillard Middle schools and closing Belfast and Southern academies as they consolidate into one school in the city.

Economic constraints are behind the efforts, said school superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor. Having to return $759,977 to the state in November to offset budget shortfalls, as well as the county commission's request to determine use of existing facilities, also contributed to the decision, he said.

"I feel like anybody in this economic situation -- we have to look at how we can best cut costs," Taylor said Tuesday. "Our county commissioners have asked us to do this -- look at our situation and determine how best we can reduce costs and better utilize facilities we have."

School officials have looked at space issues for several years, as well as different scenarios.

"We have had the alternate schools for about 18 years now. They're in our older facilities," Taylor said. Belfast, at the northern end of the county, is in the former Belfast School, while Southern Academy, in Mount Olive, is housed in the former Carver High School.

"We built new schools to replace those. We have the space now to consolidate Dillard and Goldsboro Intermediate," he said. "We have a much better facility to move our schools into."

At present, both alternative schools have combined middle and high school populations. Under the proposed consolidation, Goldsboro Intermediate and Dillard Middle would occupy the Dillard building and the Goldsboro Intermediate's facility would be divided to house the alternative schools.

"Under this scenario (for the alternative schools), we will have one grades 6-8 middle school and one 9-12 high school," Taylor said. "We can group them together and provide better services."

The proposal would create "substantial savings" as well as moving students into a better facility, the superintendent said.

"Those schools will be centrally located," he said. "We will still be busing the children but they would be centrally located. Now we have to split the children and bus all over to the far reaches of the county."

The area under consideration, the central attendance area, is school board member Thelma Smith's district. She is taking a wait-and-see approach, but agrees that with some of the declining enrollments, the move makes sense.

"I'm OK with the process as we see it," she said. "We have got to tighten our belts. Right now the whole purpose is that those two buildings -- Southern Academy and Belfast -- by closing those two schools, that will be a great savings. We're going to address all those things when we have those (public) hearings."

Opening it up to the public is essential, she noted.

As the school board is just hearing the proposed changes, she said, "We are just waiting because we think the public hearing certainly should come first. I'm sure there will be concerns until people understand why," she said. "That's why I asked Sprunt Hill (assistant superintendent for auxiliary services) when he talked about sending the fifth grade from Carver Elementary to Mount Olive, to please tell them why because people, if they understand why you're doing something, lots of times you'll get more support."

Despite budget cuts and declining enrollments, Mrs. Smith continued, before any action is taken, the public needs to be on board, and that can be done through a public forum.

"It certainly does touch into my area and my constituents and I would love for them to have their say," she said.

Now is a good time to begin the discussion, Taylor said, since the district construction plan is getting under way as the suggestion arose about shifting some students from elementary to middle schools.

Referencing the suggestion of shifting Carver's fifth grade to Mount Olive Middle, Taylor said the approach falls in line with what is already in place at Greenwood and Brodgen Middle schools.

"Both have been grades 5-8 for years," Taylor said.

The move has proven to be a successful transition for students from elementary to middle school, Taylor said, and is likely to be introduced at future schools, specifically Grantham and Spring Creek when their turn on the construction plan timeline approaches.

Were that the only issue, it would have been a simple effort. The economy changed everything, Taylor said.

"We have got to cut costs as much as we can and still maintain programs," he said.

Freeing up space in the district may mean taking somewhat drastic measures.

"Basically, we're taking four schools and putting them into two," he said. "That's a much larger issue and requires work. (Monday) night was just to introduce it to the board as an idea. Between now and the next board meeting, we will continue to study exactly what the cost savings will be, exactly how it will impact the students geographically."

The ultimate decision will be made by the school board, Taylor said.

"We'll bring it back to the board and decide if they want to proceed with it," he said. "No action will be taken at that meeting. We'll have a public meeting, and then they will take action."

The process is expected to take some time to implement, Taylor said. Officials are currently studying such aspects as transportation costs, personnel and maintenance issues.

"I think in these tough economic times, you have to make some tough decisions," Taylor said. "To me, it just makes perfect sense. Of course, the board will make the final decision."

Despite consolidations, Taylor has found a way around making drastic cuts to personnel.

"Because we'll do it at the start of the next school year, we know now where we're going to have retirements -- no one will lose their job as a result of this," he said. "If we were going to do it in the middle of the year, it might have been different. Right now, we're only hiring essential positions until the end of the year."