Teary-eyed teachers and upset parents looked on Thursday evening as Board of Education members made what they said was a difficult, but necessary, decision to close Unity Elementary School.
It is the third school to be closed for budget purposes in three years. Board members Thursday approved a proposal with four main components to make up a projected $4 million shortfall next school year:
•Close the school to save an estimated $1.1 million.
•Various budget reductions totaling $1.9 million, which will include eliminating 12 elementary school teachers and dropping the extension program.
•An up to .25 mill property tax rate increase to bring in an additional $500,000, which may be unnecessary if the county’s tax digest increases. The proposed change would increase tax paid on a $150,000 property by about $15 per year, schools superintendent Cole Pugh said.
•Use $500,000 in the school system’s reserve funds, unless $570,000 expected from Kia comes in.
“We are in a difficult situation. We are in difficult economic times, and we are charged to make a difficult decision,” said Board of Education chairwoman Sheila Rowe before the vote. “Now more than ever, we as board members are called upon to weigh our options and choose the best course of action for our school system as a whole, and let me repeat that: choose the best course of action for our school system as a whole. So having said that, I will make a motion we support our superintendent’s recommendation and choose option 1.”
Board member Ted Alford said when a company like Milliken needs to manage its bottom line, it closes mills. The city can raise utility rates, but “we don’t have any of those options.”
“I have strong ties to Unity,” Alford said, noting that his first principal job and his wife’s first teaching job were at the school, and his child attended Unity. ” … But I don’t see any other way. We have weighed this and looked at everything else. We have had some heated discussions … but I don’t see any other way.”
Board member Debbie Burdette said the decision is hard for the board to make.
“We have looked at all the options that were recommended, and looked at them every way and upside down,” she said, noting that they have too look at what’s best for the whole system. “… It’s hard for us to come to this decision. … but this is what we’ve come down to.”
The vote passed with a 5-2 margin. Board members Ashley Adams and Allen Simpson voted against the proposal.
Parent Ony Reed was at the board meeting and said she was “very disappointed” with the decision to close Unity Elementary.
“Small schools have more quality education for students,” she said. “Unfortunately, they’re trying to go into the era of new, bigger, progressive schools – the downfall of education in the future.”
Reed, who originally is from Singapore, said she was educated at neighborhood schools, went on to travel the world and attain higher education. She said she chose to stay at home to be involved with the education of her daughter, who knows all the administrators at the school.
“It’s an excellent school,” Reed said. “She has excelled tremendously from being at Unity, but they’ve made a decision and we have to follow through with it.”
Her husband, Ben Reed, said that he felt that the school system pointing to state leaders for its budget problems was misleading.
“I’m really surprised that the board would suggest that the governor has a major hand in this,” he said. “The governor is up her,” he said, gesturing high with one hand, “and the board is here,” he gestured low with the other hand. “It’s a local problem and they’re saying it’s because of the state?”
Ben Reed also criticized the school system’s openness, saying that trying to get an appointment to speak with administrators like Pugh or at a public meeting were nearly impossible. He also said it was ridiculous that the board wouldn’t answer questions at public hearings.
“They’re not listening to the foot soldiers,” he said.
Alternate options that were given for making up the expected $4 million gap included:
•$1.9 million in general budget reductions; property tax millage rate increase of .5, bringing in an estimated $900,000; adding two more employee furlough days, saving $800,000; and going back to the 165-day calendar with longer days, saving $400,000.
•$1.9 million in general budget reductions; eliminate art and music in elementary schools, cutting $1 million; eliminate an additional 13 elementary teachers, cutting $800,000; and using $300,000 in reserve funds.
•Use the reserve funds for the entire $4 million. The reserve currently stands at about $10 million, and Pugh said using only reserve funds would wipe it out in two years.
Before the vote, Pugh gave a last review of the school system’s budget issues. He again pointed to the state’s funding cuts, which has underfunded Troup County schools since 2003.
“If there’s a decision that we make tonight, any part of it that you don’t like, I hope you contact those people,” Pugh said, pointing toward a list of names of state legislators and Gov. Nathan Deal. “… I just kinda express my frustration with having to deal with this every year, when the problem is caused by people in Atlanta.”
Pugh reiterated that proposed budget cuts like additional furlough days for employees, shortening the school calendar and relying mostly or solely on reserve funds are only temporary measures for dealing with budget shortfalls. With the economy not expected to pick up any time soon and austerity cuts from the state expected to continue, Pugh said the school system needs more permanent solutions to its budget problems, not a “kick-the-can-down-the-road” option.
One of the cuts the school system will make includes 12 elementary teachers. Pugh said that more than 88 percent of the school system’s budget is employees, and the largest single item in its budget is elementary instruction, which is 97 percent personnel. So cutting employees to scale back expenses is inevitable.
“We realize that the recommendations that we are going to make impact students and parents and employees and tax payers and everybody in Troup County, but we have a responsibility when we have a $4 million deficit to do something about it,” Pugh said. “When I read in the newspaper … about school systems that have these huge deficits and they’re having to lay off hundreds of employees and close large numbers of campuses, it makes me wonder if they didn’t put this off too long. Then, all of sudden, they have this huge problem and they have to take drastic actions to deal with it. … Since (fiscal year 2003), Troup County School System has taken annual actions to deal with this problem, so even though we have a problem and it’s a serious issue, that’s why it’s not bigger than it is.”