After announcing last week a Reduction in Force plan to meet budget, the McDuffie County Board of Education made another decision to ease their budget that continues to dwindle with cuts in revenue from the state.
The board voted to close Thomson Middle School and consolidate students at the middle school, Thomson-McDuffie Junior High School and Thomson High School. Sixth and seventh graders will attend school along with eighth graders in the junior high school building on White Oak Road, and ninth graders currently being housed at the junior high will attend school at the high school next year. The junior high school name will be changed to Thomson-McDuffie Middle School.
School board member Bob Smith made the motion for the vote, Dorothy Hart seconded and the motion passed 6-0. Ella Mae Samuels did not attend the meeting.
Although the consolidation project had never been discussed at a planning or work session and was not on the meetings' agenda, board chairwoman Georgia Hobbs said in a later interview that it had been discussed for several months. She said the idea "was one of the recommendations from our superintendent" to "survive the governor's budget cuts." The vote was made immediately after the board came out of executive session at the end of their regular meeting Thursday. A press release was sent out the next day.
"We talked about it, discussed it, and just did what we felt like we had to do," Mrs. Hobbs said. "It's not a pleasant task to have to do any of the things that we've done."
School systems across the state have received cuts to the tune of millions of dollars the last few years from the state level.
Superintendent Jim LeBrun said the McDuffie County School System has lost nearly $2 million in state funding since July, 2009. He said that equals approximately 30 teaching positions. Closing the middle school will save the system a minimum of $250,000, according to the press release.
"It led me to agree this is a wise, temporary move. It's not permanent. This is just to shrink our facilities to weather this storm," school board member Greg Derry said.
Mr. Derry said he has received some complaints from residents within his district about the closure that were "sentimental" in nature. Mr. Derry said he did not understand why there was no public discussion about the idea, but it had been discussed among board members before. He and Mr. LeBrun both said the discussions compared closing Norris Elementary School with Thomson Middle. Although the Norris building does not meet building safety code regulations for a school, it made more sense to the board to close the middle school.
Mr. Derry said the middle school costs more to heat and cool; it's easier to protect from vandalism, and it's more attractive and useable for cultural events with the auditorium. Mr. LeBrun said the facility could possibly have a tenant go in, "which would not only save money by closing the school, but could bring in revenue that will save even more jobs." "There's a number of things we could use TMS for that we couldn't NES," he said. "By no means are we looking at getting rid of that facility. It could be a wonderful civic center of a community center. There's a number of things we could use it for."
Mrs. Hobbs said she felt closing the school was a much better alternative than raising property taxes. She has not received any complaints since the vote.
"I think people are trying to pay their taxes and they know that the only other way we are going to get money is to ask for an increase in local taxes. So, I think people feel like we have done what we had to do," she said.
Board members Dexter Lovins and Bob Smith deferred comment to Mr. LeBrun. Messages left for Dorothy Hart and Rick McCorkle at their residences had not been returned as of Tuesday.