LAURINBURG — Though no vote was taken, members of the Scotland County Board of Education offered no opposition to a plan for further school system consolidation presented on Monday by Superintendent Ron Hargrave.
School staff are expected to again present the plan that would be complete by the 2019-2020 school year, during the board’s Feb. 8 regular meeting.
The first phase of consolidation began in 2015 with the closure of Washington Park and Pate-Gardner elementary schools and assignment of those students to Sycamore Lane, which was converted from a middle school over the summer. The county’s middle school districts were reduced from three to two for Carver and Spring Hill.
The proposed second phase of the plan involves moving Covington Street Elementary students to Sycamore Lane for the 2017-2018 school year and adding 16 classrooms to Sycamore Lane at a cost of around $7 million. Covington Street can then be used to house Scotland Early College High, which is exceeding size limitations at St. Andrews University.
“That would allow us to expand the early college and offer it to more students and not be pinned down by space issues,” said Hargrave.
Currently, the county pays $75,000 per year and the school system pays $50,000 to St. Andrews to house the early college.
According Hargrave, St. Andrews is unwilling to extend its contract with the school system by more than one year at a time, anticipating growth in its own student population. Additionally, SEarCH enrolls more than 190 students, though the school system’s contract with St. Andrews caps student population at 160.
“We don’t need to be limited in the number of people we can put in the SEarCH program,” said board member Jamie Sutherland. “That’s what we keep talking about, and I don’t like being tied into a year-to-year contract.”
In the third phase of the proposed plan, North Laurinburg Elementary students would be moved to Laurel Hill Elementary in 2018-2019 after $7.7 million of expansions at Laurel Hill.
The final phase of the plan is a new elementary school to serve the students currently at I. Ellis Johnson and South Scotland. That facility could be constructed, at a cost of $25 million, for 2019-2020.
Board members expressed concern regarding the size of the resulting elementary schools, which would have some 800 students each. Hargrave said that the schools can overcome that challenge with by keeping quality teachers and support staff in the schools.
“If we give them adequate facilities, yes I feel great about it,” he said. “I think we have seen at Sycamore that they don’t suffer from being at a big building. It’s still about that person that’s standing in front of them. So our challenge is to make sure that we have great staff working with our children.”
Board chairman Jeff Byrd pointed out that, contrary to public opposition of last year’s changes, the consolidation so far has gone to plan.
“We’re keeping classrooms at 18 to 22 like we told people we were going to do,” he said. “We don’t have buildings sitting on the market like we told people we’re not going to do. I think we’ve stayed true to our word.”
In other business Monday, the board authorized staff to request funding from the Scotland County Board of Commissioners to install a new chiller at Scotland High School.
The chiller currently serving Buildings 2 and 3 at the high school, though last repaired in August 2014, is again in need of the same repair after breaking two months outside of the repair warranty, according to auxiliary services superintendent Larry Johnson.
“Cooling the entire high school is an issue,” Johnson said. “If we had warm weather today, there would be a major issue with keeping the school cool. So what that means is we have to do something prior to April or May.”
The existing chiller has served 18 years of a 25-year expected lifespan. School staff are recommending the purchase of a new chiller at a cost of $230,000. As the school system’s capital outlay budget is nearly depleted, the school system will request that the county cover the cost.
“It’s their responsibility,” said Hargrave. “We’ve been told to spend down our capital budget and when we had a need to come to them, and that’s where we are: we have an emergency, we have a need, and something’s got to be done within the next six to eight weeks or we’re going to end up sending kids home because we can’t keep them cool.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.