Sup’t. Bearden sticks with closing 3 F’ville schools, rejects reasoning of 2 BoE members
Fayette County School System Superintendent Jeff Bearden has a dispute with two of his five bosses on the Board of Education about how to cut costs and which schools should be closed, and he has gone public with that dispute.
In a letter to the editor in the Aug. 15 edition, Bearden held firm to his belief that only three Fayetteville schools should be closed and Rivers Elementary outside the city opened. That’s at odds with board members Bob Todd and Marion Key.
Bearden said he wants what is best for the communities and students involved.
The politics of his positions are unclear. Of the other three members of the board, one (Janet Smola) opted not to seek reelection and has only five months remaining on the board, one (Terri Smith) switched from Republican to Democrat label and faces an uphill battle to retain her seat in the November general election, and the third (Leonard Presberg) is in an appointed slot.
After Jan. 1, Bearden may have lost his majority support on the board.
Bearden began the letter noting his initial recommendation and his position that he still stands behind his call to close Hood Avenue Primary, Fayette Intermediate and Fayette Middle School and open Rivers Elementary as a K-5 school.
The reasons for the recommendation were three-fold and included:
• Hood Avenue Primary and Fayette Intermediate were built in 1970 and 1974. Fayette Middle was built in 1986. While these buildings have been well maintained, they are not as modern as the school system’s newer facilities.
• The three schools that would close, because of their desirable location, could be re-purposed. With the current level of support for a College and Career Academy, one of the closed schools could be used either for that purpose or the academy could use the LaFayette Educational Center. If LEC is used the school system’s instructional department could move to one of the vacated buildings. The other closed schools could provide some much needed rental income to the school system.
• Displaced students would be relocated to attend another, more modern school.
Bearden also made reference to the reason behind the recommendation.
“In the past four years, Fayette County Public Schools has seen a decrease in local and state revenue of $25 million dollars and a loss of student enrollment of 1,800 students. We have too many schools and lack the financial resources to maintain the status quo,” he said.
Also in the letter, Bearden referenced the additional options of closing Brooks Elementary and/or Tyrone Elementary that surfaced at a school board meeting in the spring. His opposition to the closures of Tyrone and Brooks was based on economics, lengthy bus routes and community need.
“The loss of these two schools would have a detrimental economic impact on those two communities,” Bearden said. “Because these are the only two schools in these communities, property values may drop and families looking to move to Fayette would likely choose an alternative community. Some of our children from Brooks would have incredibly long bus rides to get to their nearest school. I do not believe the closure of these two schools is best for kids or for those two communities.”
Bearden also commented on the Aug. 6 recommendation by school board member Bob Todd to have another option considered: the closure of Inman Elementary along with Tyrone and Fayette Middle while keeping Rivers at its current function of serving a portion of the county’s special education students.
Bearden in the letter said he is also opposed to that option.
“If Inman were to close, because of its remote location, the district would struggle to find opportunities to re-purpose this facility. The plan proposed by Todd, and supported by Marion Key, would take our local taxpayers’ investment in facilities and basically leave these two state-of-the-art facilities unattended. I do not and will not support their proposal,” said Bearden.
Advocating for the continued use of Inman and the expanded use of Rivers, Bearden said, “Whether or not Inman, Rivers, and even Bennett’s Mill Middle School should have been constructed is irrelevant at this point in time. They were built. Our community has already invested over $23 million dollars on the construction of Inman and Rivers. They should be utilized to their capacity. My proposal does just that.”
Bearden concluded the letter saying that his decisions are always motived by what he thinks is best for the community and its children.
Though not a part of the letter, Bearden’s original proposal to close three schools and open one, a net closure of two schools, would generate a total savings of $1.6 million in administrative and utility costs. While substantial, those savings do not begin to address the much larger shortfall facing the school system next July.
Agreeing with Bearden’s recommendation, the school board on a 3-2 vote in June adopted a $177 million budget that required the use of $14.2 million of the $15 million June 30 fund balance. Aside from school closures and the savings from an as yet unknown number of resignations and retirements during the school year, Bearden has stated in previous board meetings that decreases in personnel expenditures will be used to balance the 2013-2014 budget that begins next July. Bearden to date has given no indication as to where the millions in personnel savings might come from.