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April 10, 2014

Hamilton: Resolutions passed opposing elementary school consolidation

Jasper — On April 1, the town council of Jennings passed a resolution opposing countywide elementary school consolidation, stating it is not in the best interests of their children, their families or their town. On April 4, the White Springs town council followed suit with a similar resolution and both resolutions were forwarded to Hamilton County School Superintendent Thomas Moffses in preparation for an April 14 school board meeting where the matter will be discussed and voted on.

White Springs Town Council

The White Springs Town Council called an emergency meeting on Friday, April 4, to address an upcoming school district proposal to consolidate all three elementary schools in the county. A large crowd of White Springs community members were in attendance at the meeting to learn the specifics of the proposed consolidation and many, including town council members, vehemently objected to the idea.

A consolidation would mean closing South Hamilton Elementary School (South) in White Springs, North Hamilton Elementary School (North) in Jennings and Central Hamilton Elementary School (Central) in Jasper, and move forward with a plan, in conjunction with the Florida Department of Education, to build a new school that would accommodate all Hamilton County elementary students at a site in Jasper that is yet to be determined.

A school board meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 14, at the Hamilton County High School auditorium at 6 p.m., where school board members will vote yes or no on the matter.

Mayor Helen Miller said, “This community went through a lot of emotion and a lot of work and activity about two years ago when we were informed that the school board decided to close South.”

Miller said efforts to convert South into a charter school at that time were successful in keeping the school open, even though the charter school application was denied.

“I think the sentiments in this community are very strong and aren’t going to change,” said Miller. “We value our local elementary school, especially in view of the process that here, once again, we haven’t been asked for any feedback or input into the process. The only meeting we had in this community is one that dealt with safety concerns. From what we can tell from reading the information from the school district, safety and security issues aren’t that big of a deal in White Springs at South.”

District 4 School Board member Johnny Bullard

Bullard was asked by Miller to give a synopsis in plain English as to what he thinks is going on, so that the town can come up with a plan to address the situation.

“In plain English,” Bullard said. “There has been some concern from members of the school board and the superintendent about the age of the buildings at North, South and Central, and their conditions.”

He explained there is still a long list of items on the Special Facilities Construction Checklist from the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) that need to be completed before any new construction can begin. The school district is at a point, he said, where school board members must vote whether or not to close the three elementary schools and elect to have a new consolidated facility built.

“What timeframe that would take before closure would take place, I don’t know, or even if it would, because the possibility for Special Facilities dollars is just that...it’s a possibility,” Bullard said.

He referenced Dixie County, who thought for certain they would have a new high school built last year.

“They were turned down at the last minute through the legislature by Special Facilities that they were waiting on for three or four years,” he said. “In the state of Florida, Special Facilities dollars are not nearly as fluid as they once were.”

Bullard said his basic understanding of the FDOE’s philosophy is that consolidating schools that have from 500-700 students is more effective as far as curriculum is concerned, than small community schools.

“I, for one, don’t agree with that,” said Bullard.

The primary concern of the board of education, Bullard continued, is that the school board ensure the safety and welfare of its students. He said everyone is aware of the age of the building at South, but construction issues aren’t nearly as bad as what’s going on at North.

Bullard said most parents want to be as close to their child’s school as possible in case of an emergency, illness or accident. If a new elementary school were built in Jasper, Bullard said the first place a student would be taken if they incurred an accident would be to Shands Live Oak Regional Medical Center, which is not equipped for trauma. In White Springs a child could be taken to Lake City, or in Jennings they would be taken to Valdosta, both of which are equipped to handle trauma cases, he added.

“If I were a parent, that would be a concern to me,” Bullard said. “In plain terms, I will not now, unless my constituency overwhelmingly comes to me and says to me, nor will I ever vote for closure of this school, nor consolidation because I don’t believe in it.”

Bullard said he has heard varying figures as to how much it would cost to bring the three elementary schools up to code. The first figure he heard was $6 million, however, he said he heard another figure later that was much higher.

Bullard suggested that the community be sure to attend the school board meeting on Monday, April 14, and that a representative from the FDOE, he thinks, will be there.

“In the superintendent’s defense, I will say this,” Bullard said. “All this that has occurred has come straight down the line, as far as the steps are concerned. What was a surprise to me, was that it would come this early in the school year, and the timing. It’s probably not the best time because this is the time of year when teachers, children and parents think about FCAT testing. If you have looming out there the possibility of consolidation or closure, there could be some kind of effect.”

He said if FCAT scores were to come down, then it would just be another reason to justify closing the three schools and consolidating.

Miller again urged everyone to be at the April 14 school board meeting to oppose closure of South and consolidation of the elementary schools.

Woody Woodard

Resident Woody Woodard said, “If you take that school out of this community, you have ripped the very heart out of the community. The same thing in Jennings.”

Vice Mayor Walter McKenzie

“Throughout this whole thing, they’ve been talking about the quality of the facility and the budget, but education is not just about the facility and the budget,” said McKenzie. “This decision that we’re making should be made about the community and about the pupils and the parents. The community, the parents and the pupils in White Springs are more involved than they are anywhere else. It’s because they’ve got a local school with all the guidance that’s important to a local school. It’s also about the overall health of White Springs. When you shut that school down, it’s going to be a big economic hit on our town.”

School District General Services Director Chuck Lambert

 Lambert was in attendance at the meeting and he said his stance on the issue was neutral.

“I’m going to support the board 100 percent whichever way they decide to go,” said Lambert.

He also said it was estimated that it would cost $17 million to renovate all three schools and that it could be done.

Councilman Rhett Bullard

“This is something that affects you,” Bullard told those in the audience.

He said building a new consolidated school will ultimately result in raised taxes.

“When they take your school out of your town, what’s going to happen to your property value is, your property value is going to go down.”

Closing South, he said, will not only hurt the residents, but the businesses, as well.

“All of those are the sources of revenue from which taxes come,” he added.

Consolidation, he went on, does not work.

“It has not worked in other counties and it has not worked in this county,” said Bullard. “Our school district grade isn’t that great. The only thing propping that grade up are the non-consolidated elementary schools.”

Resolution

The White Springs Town Council unanimously approved a resolution that they are not in favor of closure of South and not in favor of elementary school consolidation.

Miller explained that White Springs is in the middle of an important process with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity through a Competitive Florida Partnership Pilot Program and that they are about to map all the town’s assets. The school, she said, is an integral part of their asset map. Miller also said the focus needs to be on the education of students and not the building.

“Let’s focus on working together and trying to find something that works, as opposed to always setting up unilateral actions to result in conflict,” said Miller.

Town Manager Bob Farley said the town of Jennings has already passed a similar resolution. Miller asked that Farley also get with the city of Jasper to see if they will follow suit.

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