An estimated 150 people came out to a hearing Monday night on the proposed closing of Unity Elementary School, with almost 20 people speaking out against closing the school.
The full auditorium at the school burst into applause several times as speakers denounced the idea of closing the third school in three years. Speakers criticized the Board of Education for plans to move toward bigger elementary schools, saying that closing neighborhood schools will negatively affect children, parents, teachers and the quality of education.
“I hate to see the Troup County School System shut down and close a school to build new schools in its place,” said Tommy Callaway, the first speaker at the hearing.
He criticized the school system’s plan to build new schools, at an expected cost of about $21 million, when closing Unity would save an expected $1.1 million. The school system plans to use special-purpose, local-option sales tax funds for planned school construction, which are limited to capital improvements projects.
Callaway challenged the school board to demand cuts to non-funded, administrative and central office positions. He said that if closing Unity won’t benefit students or teachers academically, the board should not approve it.
Frank Cox, a former LaGrange city councilman, proposed that Unity and other LaGrange parents demand the reformation of the LaGrange City School System so city residents could decide how to handle schools.
“Give the problems the school board has back to the city of LaGrange and bring our kids back home,” he said.
Deborah Santiago said the school system needs to implement a hiring freeze and cut out luxury positions, like academic coaches, Communities in Schools workers and RTI — Response to Intervention — personnel, whose duties should be shifted back to teachers. She also said if the school system wants to close a school, it should be Hope Academy, which takes alternative school students that previously were kept at local schools and could be returned to local schools.
Central office staff should take a pay cut, and art and music programs should not be cut, Santiago added. She said her full list of proposals could save an estimated $3 million.
“We need to save community schools,” Santiago said. “Bigger is not better,” she concluded to wild applause from the group.
Charlie McCamey said the school system is cutting people from the bottom end of the totem pole, when it should be trimming from the top. He asked Superintendent Cole Pugh and other administrators how much they would be willing to cut from their salaries to help save the school.
Mike Smith said the school system participated in “corporate welfare” by allowing corporations like Kia to not pay the full amount of property tax through incentive deals. He said the tax cuts Kia and other corporations receive are not fair to the school system or tax payers.
LaGrange City Councilman LeGree McCamey said that if the Board of Education continues to close neighborhood schools, it will deter more big businesses, like Kia, from coming to the area. He read a report saying that Unity had the highest gains in math, science and social studies and asked, rhetorically, “and this is the school you want to close,” which drew cheers from the audience.
Cabriel Bruce said his daughter, who is vision-impaired, loves the school and she feels accepted and can walk to the building and knows her way around. He said the Board of Education needs to remember the comfort of students and the impact that closing schools has on them, equating closing a school where students feel accepted to “snatching them up in the middle of the night” to send them to someplace foreign.
“What about the parents in the community who can walk students to school,” Bruce asked. “You talk about saving money (on the cost of transportation), that saves money.”
Elizabeth Thornton said that there are teachers at Unity who have been shifted from Cannon Street Elementary and West Side Magnet schools, which were closed in the last couple of years. She said the board needs to look at the hardships imposed on communities when a school is closed. She also challenged Pugh and other administrators to cut their pay.
“You already stuck a knife into the back of the community,” she said, referring to the other schools’ closings. “Now you’re putting salt in the open wounds.”
One speaker said the board needs to put children first and compared closing Unity and building another school to buying a new house because the current one needs roof work. He said that if the property tax millage rate needs to go up to help pay for school system operations, then everyone should chip in to help.
In a presentation before the hearing, Pugh said that one of the reasons Unity is being considered for closure is because it doesn’t have room to expand. The school system is looking at the possibility of expanding at Ethel Kight Magnet School, which sits on about 16 acres of land as opposed to the about 5 acres where Unity is located.
A woman who didn’t identify herself said she moved to the area from Singapore and that schools there charge a small fee for those who ride the bus. She proposed doing the same and that, in general, if everyone was willing to contribute, it could decrease costs.
Anton Flores said that not all the blame for changes lies at the Board of Education, but the board needs to consider how changing class sizes will affect students, how closed schools will affect the property taxes of surrounding residents and how students who have been shuffled from Cannon Street and West Side already will be affected by again having to change schools.
Flores said that if the board does vote to close Unity, it should reveal the other schools it is considering to close in the future and that it should make sure that a new, “massive, beautiful school” is built for southeast LaGrange.
A student, who wasn’t identified, said she has to go across town to get to school, and asked why students were sent from “school to school to school.” She said students need some time to rest in one place. Another student tearfully asked why they would want to close the school.
Deborah Story, who said her children went to Unity and on to successful careers, said that looking at the “big numbers” of budget issues is not always the best answer.
Jimmy McCamey Jr. asked if the board was considering the psychological and psychosocial impacts on the children if they are taken away from community schools. He said there is nothing showing that larger schools improve education, and that the board needs to account for the needs of the students and not just its budget.