Consolidation is back on the table in Fayette County. But this time it has the strong support of community members who participated in a recent public input process to improve school facilities.
By a vote of 40 to 7, a citizens’ committee that met last Tuesday night recommended that the county not move forward with a bond proposal for repairing and maintaining all existing schools in the county. The committee was composed of three representatives from every school; they burst into applause when the vote was announced.
This is a historic moment for a school system that has passionately fought consolidation measures in the past. The county has been urged by the state for many years to reduce the number of buildings it operates, both because of financial strain and the need to provide a stronger curriculum, especially at the high school level.
“I think we need to now move forward with what’s best for our students. If that involves closing some facilities, we need to (...) communicate to people the reasons why those hard decisions need to be made,” said Board of Education member Leon Ivey, who opposed the bond proposal.
Director of Operations Ron Cantley said he believed the group had “chosen wisely.”
Each school was given an opportunity to make a two-minute presentation Tuesday. Comments like “Our building is falling apart,” and “We are bursting at the seams,” summed up the sentiment of many who want to see their facilities improved, but not by paying to fix up all the existing schools.
An architect put the cost of bringing all the county’s buildings back from the brink at $136 million.
“The general consensus is there are too many schools, they are too old, many are underutilized and our students can be better served with newer and fewer schools,” said Bill Hannabass, who represented Fayette Institute of Technology (FIT) at the meeting.
Fayette County currently outspends the median American school district in operation and maintenance by a margin of 3 to 2, mainly in the area of personnel. The county is over the state aid formula for the number of personnel it employs, which drains millions from other areas of the budget. Its custodial costs are double the national average.
The recent public input process was spurred initially by several Meadow Bridge area citizens who, with the support of the state superintendent, wanted a grassroots effort to find out whether citizens would support a bond to repair and keep all schools open. It included school-level meetings, an architectural assessment, polling and focus groups.
Since the current bond proposal was rejected, the county will now revert to its current Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan (CEFP), vetted by citizens and approved by the state board in 2010.
The current plan calls for closing Ansted Elementary; replacing Fayetteville Elementary and combining it with Gatewood Elementary; and replacing Mount Hope Elementary, while shuffling some New River students from their overcrowded school to Mount Hope.
A consolidated middle school at the current Fayetteville High School facility would be home to both Fayetteville and Ansted middle students. Collins Middle would be replaced.
And finally, the plan merges Midland Trail, Meadow Bridge, and Fayetteville high schools at a renovated Midland Trail High School in Hico.
The plan can be formally amended if a school needs a change.
“We have learned a lot in this process and I want to take it all into account before we move forward,” said Fayette County Superintendent Keith Butcher.
Butcher also intends to put out a bond call in May that would “better address the needs of some of our aging facilities.”
The county will also ask the School Building Authority (SBA) to fund a significant needs project, as well as a smaller project, this December. Those projects have not yet been determined.
Not all in the room felt inspired to applaud the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting.
Shane Harless and Logan Crowe, two students at Meadow Bridge High School, were among the only students in attendance. They both would like to see their school stay open to avoid lengthy travel times.
“The transportation to get us to another school in Fayette County would not be on good roads and we would travel farther than if they closed another school in the county,” said Crowe.
His high school has an enrollment of 229 and utilizes only 44 percent of its space. But small community schools have strong support in the Meadow Bridge area, which, because of geography and transportation infrastructure, can feel far removed from the busier U.S. 19 corridor.
“For my child, I feel that small schools are in their best interest and I’d be willing to sacrifice a little when it comes to paying for a bond,” said a Meadow Bridge parent, Mark Gladwell. “I feel a lot can be said for the positives of community schools.”
Many in attendance wondered why curriculum was not the focus of discussion.
“Every fact we have, every figure, says our students are suffering tremendously in curricular ways,” said FIT principal Barry Crist.
“As we talk about how curriculum and facilities intersect (...) we have to understand that facilities really do make a difference in educating our students,” he said.
Those intersections include the need, through appropriate spaces and facilities, to create healthy learning environments, provide labs and athletic facilities, create technology infrastructure, enrich class offerings, recruit and retain great teachers and keep maintenance costs down so those dollars can be put toward improving education.
But one committee member pointed out that since schools are falling apart, the time to act on facilities is now and “we can talk about curriculum while schools are being built.”
“I think a lot of very important information came to light during this process and I hope participation will continue to grow as we move forward with improving education,” said Geoff Heeter, a concerned Fayette County parent.