Fayette School Superintendent Bearden warns of ‘painful’ closings


Which Fayette schools to close to save money: That’s the main agenda item at a called meeting of the Fayette County Board of Education to be held April 9.

Superintendent Jeff Bearden will make his recommendations on initial recommended school closures that would take effect in August 2013. School officials said the meeting will be held at 7 p.m. the school system office on Stonewall Avenue in Fayetteville.

The topic of closing schools surfaced last fall as one of a number of cost-saving measures intended to offset falling revenues and declining student enrollment. The conversation at that time dealt with the possibility of closing two elementary schools, opening Rivers Elementary School and closing one middle school. Bearden later in the fall recommended that the topic be put on hold for the time being.

The idea of closing schools resurfaced in a larger report by Bearden in March, one that centered on cost-saving budget measures that the school board will be facing for the 2012-2013 school year that begins in July.

“(School closures) will cause a lot of reaction and we want to make sure the community is aware,” Bearden told board members. “This will be painful but I think we’ve reached the point that we need to look at it.”

The reason for bringing the school closure topic back is reflected in the ongoing issue of money, both in shrinking revenues and in the rising cost of doing business. Bearden noted the virtual absence of residential building permits in recent years and the loss of more than 1,800 students in the past several years.

Adding to the issue of falling student enrollment, though not accounted for by Bearden in the presentation, is a University of Georgia study performed last year that projected a slow but continued decline in enrollment through 2021. The study by the Carl Vinson Institute results showed the school system projected to lose another 8.1 percent in enrollment, or more than 1,600 students, over the next decade with the greatest decrease in enrollment coming in the middle and high schools grades and with enrollment inching up in the elementary grades.

Projections by Carl Vinson notwithstanding, current student enrollment in Fayette schools of approximately 20,300 is about where the school system was in 2001.

The school board a decade ago was continuing to see the results of decades-long growth in population and, with it, the need to build more schools. Some schools were overcrowded and subject to having trailers on school property to handle the overflow, according to previous comments by some on the school board.

It was in that era that five new schools were opened. Those included Minter Elementary and Cleveland Elementary in 2002, Crabapple Elementary in 2003, Whitewater High in 2004 and Bennett’s Mill Middle in 2007.

Meantime, Fayette County schools today have lost more than a decade of enrollment growth. The school system just this year lost more than 700 students over the previous year. Whether that trend will continue is unknown, though the first indication of what the future holds will be seen when the first head count is taken during the first week of school in August.

Adding another facet to the unenviable position facing the school system and the school board is the current status of the Fayette County economy. Figures released Monday showed the tax digest for 2012 shrinking by 10.39 percent. That equates to what is expected to be $492 million less in property values this year compared to 2011. The school system receives more than half its operational revenues from local property taxes.