We could know as early as Feb. 11 whether the Dougherty County School System will close two schools and use a third one to house a group of programs.
Last week, the Dougherty County School Board accepted a report from its consultant, Eric Bosman of Kimley-Horn and Associates of Atlanta, who said the system should close Sylvester Road Elementary and Dougherty Middle schools. Magnolia Elementary School would have a new use as the site for a group of four programs — the ESP (Exceptional Students Program), the Elementary Performance Learning Center, Oak Tree Psychoeducational Center and the county’s pre-kindergarten.
That schools will have to be closed is a given when you look at the raw numbers. Ken Dyer, the school systems executive director of finance and operations, said the system is feeling a double whammy — fewer students and fewer dollars.
Systemwide, there are 15,612 students in the Dougherty County School System. In the past eight years, Dougherty County’s public school population has dropped by 1,282 students, an average of more than 160 students a year. While that decline may have slowed a bit — Dyer projects losses of 136 students annually through 2015 — that still means that larger percentages of building capacity will go unused each year. Officials aim at an occupancy rate of 90-95 percent for schools, ensuring they’re not crowded and that facilities are being efficiently used. Eight of the system’s 16 elementary schools, Bosman said, are at below 85 percent capacity, while five of the county’s six middle schools fall below the 85 percent mark.
Meanwhile, austerity cuts have hit the system for an average of $7 million a year over the past decade. From 2008 to 2012, Dyer told School Board members, local revenue has fallen more than $3 million, while revenue from the state has dropped more than $10 million and general fund revenue has gone down $14 million.
The simple math is that things can’t keep going as they have been. Students need to be placed in the best learning environments possible and the system must be run as efficiently as possible, maximizing every taxpayer dollar spent. If two school buildings are not needed, that is money unnecessarily spent on maintenance, energy and repairs that could be better spent elsewhere.
There are concerns that the two schools that would be closed under the plan are east of the Flint River, a natural boundary that bisects the county. On Friday, School Board member Darrel Ealum and Albany City Commissioner Jon Howard, each of whom represents a district on the eastern side, questioned the location of both closures and said the School Board was moving too quickly toward a decision.
The choices of schools is a question that should be asked: Are Sylvester Road Elementary and Dougherty Middle the two that should be closed? The School Board must weigh the factors and arrive at that decision, one that must not be made lightly. Residents of the county will have the chance — and should — to give their opinions to the board at a pair of public meetings this week. Both will be conducted at the School Administration Building, located at the southwest corner of Washington Street and Pine Avenue. The first is set for 5 p.m. Monday, and the second will be conducted at noon Thursday. These are good times for school officials to explain their reasoning. The decision cannot rest on emotion, but on what is best for the students and the county’s residents, including the taxpayers.
As far as the speed at which a decision should be made, the quicker the better. If changes are to be in effect by the 2013-14 school year, there will be a great deal of work to do. Regardless of which buildings are closed, attendance zones will have to be adjusted, staffing reassigned, equipment and materials moved and buildings prepared for new students. And families will have to be notified of the changes.
The math adds up to one thing — the need for well thought-out action to be taken by the School Board.