“It’s time to change,” said Board of Education Chairman John Darden after seeing Thursday’s board meeting proposal for budget plans and school changes. “And everyone’s not going to get what they want.”
A proposal to the Troup County Board of Education for upcoming fiscal year changes includes the possibilities of closing Unity Elementary School; cutting extension, art and music teachers; and raising taxes. Long-range plans include a massive reconfiguration of how elementary schools serve the county in an effort to create more efficiency.
The proposals were created by the school system’s Advisory Task Force made up of school officials, parents and others from the community. The group is assembled every year to look at budget options and make recommendations for how to proceed in the coming fiscal years.
“I tell people (in the task force) that they are here to represent the people of Troup County, not just protect their schools,” said Superintendent Cole Pugh. “They are here to do what’s in the best interest for the long-range planning of Troup County schools.”
The task force has come up with two possibilities: Plan A, which Pugh described as the bare minimum the school system will need to do to make it through another year; and Plan B, which includes sweeping changes that would create larger schools serving more students, relocating some schools, redrawing districts and opening new schools in place of others while leaving more room for growth.
Both plans include redrawing attendance for elementary schools zones to create more efficient bus routes. Staff is estimating a $3.2 to $4 million deficit next fiscal year.
Plan A includes proposals to eliminate extension teachers and art and music in elementary schools, which would save about $3 million combined, and increase the millage rate, which, if raised by 1 mill, is expected to generate $1.8 million.
Extension “is about a 4-million-dollar program. The state reimburses about half of it, and we pick up about half,” Pugh said. “It’s been in place a long time; it’s been in place so long, in fact, that it’s just the way we’ve always done it. It’s a great program, I’m all for it, but it probably is the most expensive elementary delivery system that there is. So I think we have to take all those factors into consideration.
“Another that we don’t want to have to talk about again – but it’s art and music. That’s about a million dollars. Art and music are not required (by the state), art and music art not funded by the state. The state funds one elementary specialist and physical education is required.”
Also suggested is again shortening the school calendar like the system implemented in 2010, which saved $411,224.
“I know it was not a pleasant experience,” Pugh said. “I understand that a lot of people do not want to do it again, but it’s an option.”
The plan still includes improvements at schools, which would be paid for with special-purpose, local-option sales tax funds, which are restricted to capital outlay and building projects. Pugh said the school system still would need to look at prioritizing which schools got upgrades based on which buildings are likely to be kept.
Plan B includes closing Unity Elementary School, a $1.1 million expected savings, while still implementing some options listed in Plan A.
Overall, it also would include long-term plans for reconfiguring school zones and improving other elementary school sites to create fewer, larger, more efficient campuses. The proposal by the Advisory Task Force was to create 10 elementary schools with corresponding attendance zones county-wide, each school having a 750-student capacity.
Pugh said the task force currently is not expecting funds for art, music and extension to continue, regardless of which path the school system takes.
“I wish I could guarantee that if we went to 750 (students per school) that we could have art and music full time and extension teachers in every class,” Pugh said. “But there’s a little asterisk there that says due to the funding from the state of Georgia, we can’t guarantee that. I think if we could guarantee it, we would tie our hands in a way that we couldn’t get out of it.”
Hurdles the school system currently faces with elementary schools include school choice areas where students in the same neighborhood may attend different schools, creating redundancies in bus routes. Pugh pointed to an area near Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia where different students along the same road are bused to Long Cane, West Point or Whitesville Road elementary schools. Also, there currently are areas of the county where students have no nearby school and have to be bused around West Point Lake or the interstate, which increases transportation costs.
With Plan B’s long-range focus, closure of Berta Weathersbee and Mountville elementary schools also would be an option down the road, with relocation of Rosemont, West Point and Whitesville Road elementary schools to different locations and bigger, new facilities to help complete the vision of having larger campuses that would more efficiently serve more students. Two new schools would be planned to be placed in locations closer to students that currently have no convenient options.
“What we’ve done, here’s a Plan A and a Plan B, and there may be a Plan C out there that’s even better,” Pugh told board members, noting that staff was not yet asking board members to take action on any proposals. “Let’s start to get feedback on here and see what people come up with before we make a decision.”
He said the school system was about to enter a period of uncertainty and ambiguity as parents and staff want to know the future of their schools, but there aren’t yet any answers. He said it was better to put the options out for the public to mull over before going forward with any decisions.
Darden said the current economic climate will make painful choices necessary and state legislators have indicated that funding for local schools is not expected to increase – and may likely continue to decrease.
“Dr. Pugh has said that we have no problem that money can’t solve, but we don’t have the money to do that,” Darden said. “I don’t see that changing ever. I don’t see us ever getting back to running buses like crazy and not worrying about it. We’ll be lucky if we stay the same.”