The McDuffie County Board of Education held two public hearings last Thursday regarding their recent decision to reorganize students at Thomson Middle and Thomson-McDuffie Junior High schools.
Approximately 20 people attended both the morning and evening sessions, with less than half of those using the opportunity to speak or ask questions. School system central office employees attended the morning session.
Sue Richards, who is not a school system employee, attended the evening session and said she was concerned with the low turnout. Ms. Richards asked if attendance at the morning session was any better.
"Is this all the interested public we have?" she asked.
The Board of Education voted at the end of their regular February meeting to close the Thomson Middle School facility and consolidate schools in an effort to help the budget situation. The facility on Main Street currently houses sixth and seventh graders. Next year, students in those grades will attend school in the Thomson-McDuffie Junior High School building on White Oak Road.
Thomson-McDuffie Junior High currently serves eighth and ninth grades. Eighth-grade students will remain there next year, but ninth graders will attend school at Thomson High School. The name of the junior high will be changed to Thomson-McDuffie County Middle School.
In his opening statements during last week's public hearings, McDuffie Schools Superintendent Jim LeBrun said the local system has implemented measures to offset reductions in funding from the state, including: a modified 170-day instructional calendar, a modified 184-day work calendar for certified teachers, continued reduced local supplements, continued reduction in substitute teacher expenditures, continued hiring freeze for nonessential positions, an energy management plan, terminations of specified contracted services, a widespread expense freeze on nonessentials, and a 20 percent reduction in system level program area expenditures. The number of employees planned to be let go during a Reduction In Force was relieved due to the retirement or transfer of 40 certified and non-certified employees.
When announcements from Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue's office revealed over $900 million more cuts in revenue, the local school board resorted to consolidating the middle and junior high schools.
"By consolidating schools, we reduce the number of (faculty and staff) positions needed by moving employees into previously vacated positions," Mr. LeBrun said in his presentation.
The consolidation will immediately eliminate the need for one principal, five food service workers, five secretaries, seven custodians and one school nurse, totaling approximately $480,000 in savings. The consolidation also will eliminate utilities costs of the middle school facility, which exceed $127,000 annually, Mr. LeBrun said.
Several questions at the hearings centered around closing Norris Elementary School instead of the middle school. Mr. LeBrun explained neither school meets current fire code regulations. He said future plans are to build a new Norris Elementary facility, so spending money to bring it up to code would be money wasted. The middle school facility currently poses a greater fire hazard due to the pine wood flooring, "which would act as an accelerator if a fire actually did break out," Mr. LeBrun said.
Although the plan is to take students out of the middle school next year, Mr. LeBrun stressed that the facility will be maintained for future use. School officials are looking into the costs of installing a sprinkler system in the building. Possible plans for the building include housing school service departments, such as student services, technology services, or MEEPS after school administration. The facility also could be used for community meetings, performing arts or a multifunction community civic center, although Mr. LeBrun said they would not charge the city or county to use the facility.
"We have worked extremely hard to devise plans to save the local taxpayers' dollars while saving jobs," Mr. LeBrun said. "Failure to consolidate will cost the county dollars and jobs."
McDuffie County resident Preston Newton expressed concern that closing the middle school would make the town seem more abandoned, especially when coupled with the upcoming closure of government offices that will move into the new city/county government complex.
"We are in the business of educating children, so downtown development is not what we do," Mr. LeBrun said later in an interview.
As the wife of a school board member, Charlotte Derry said she understands the need to consolidate and save money, but the school facility is sentimental and serves as a landmark in the city because many people graduated from there when the facility served as the high school.
Board member Dexter Lovins stressed that closing the school meant they would not have to raise property taxes.
"The public input was very good, and we are going to do what's best for the children and taxpayers of McDuffie County," he said.