Two years ago, our board was considering a building expansion at Washington Park Elementary School. Many of our classrooms were housed outside of the building’s main structure in mobile units.
Firm in our belief that student and staff safety should be one of the primary driving forces behind any decision we make, we looked for ways to eliminate all mobile classrooms throughout the district. Knowing that any capital projects of this magnitude would have to be approved by our Board of Commissioners, we took our proposed plan to the commissioners for their approval. In turn, the commissioners challenged us as a board to look at options other than adding on to an already aging school.
Knowing that our student population is declining, and projected to do so over the next three years before leveling off, our board directed district administrators to conduct a building capacity study. What we found was that many of our schools, in particular our middle schools at only 60 percent, were operating under capacity. In essence, there were far less students in the buildings than what the schools were originally designed to serve.
Using this capacity study, our board and district administration looked objectively at how we could use our buildings more efficiently and effectively, and by calculating the long term costs of updating and maintaining some of our schools that were over 50 years old verses consolidating our schools and building a new elementary school, we developed a phased consolidation plan.
However, we as a board want it to be clear that although we strive to be the best stewards of our financial resources, this was not the only reason that was considered as we looked at consolidation. Again, the safety of our students and staff was a primary motivating factor. We also eliminated any scenario that increased class sizes.
We have taken pride in the fact that we have, and continue to have, small class sizes. Even when state guidelines allow for more students in the classrooms, our board remains committed to keeping our class sizes small as compared to other districts throughout our region and state. As a board, we also looked at our bus routes when developing possible consolidation scenarios. We also looked at where in our community our students are located. Knowing that we don’t want to extend students’ time on the buses being transported to and from a school that’s a great distance away from their homes, nor do we want to make it inconvenient for families to be involved in school activities, we looked at where county’s population and our student count is higher when considering which schools to close and which would remain open.
Not because of any legal obligation, but because we genuinely wanted feedback from parents, staff, and the community, we conducted public input sessions at each and every school that would possibly be affected. These meetings were well attended and we were provided a lot of useful feedback from these discussions.
One of the comments that we continued to hear, not only during the public input sessions, but throughout the community as well, is that when considering consolidation, to not only look at scenarios solely through the lens of capacity, but to make real efforts to diversify our schools and address racial and economic imbalance. What we have learned, and what research has conclusively shown, is that diversity improves student outcomes. Responding to this feedback and looking at the research data, we developed additional scenarios and redesigned our original consolidation plan to not only address safety, capacity, class size, and transportation issues, but to also address diversity and equity concerns.
The column is the first of two on education. It was drafted by Scotland County school board members Jeff Byrd, Darrel “B.J.” Gibson,Raymond Hyatt, Summer Gainey, Pat Gates, Charles Brown and Jamie Sutherland and Wayne Cromartie.