LOCKHART — What will it mean to the Town of Lockhart if the Union County Board of School Trustees votes next Monday to close Lockhart Elementary/Middle School?
That was the question asked and answered by Town of Lockhart Mayor Ailene Ashe during a special meeting of the school board in the LEMS auditorium. The purpose of the meeting was to provide a forum for parents and guardians of children enrolled in the school and local officials like Ashe to present information to the board as it contemplates the future of the school.
The forum was the result of a motion passed by the board at its Feb. 26 meeting to allow Superintendent Dr. William Roach to use his authority to assign employment to employees currently assigned to LEMS to ensure that none of the employees currently assigned to the school lose their jobs for the 2018-2019 school year. The motion also directed Roach to schedule a public forum at Lockhart to allow the board to consider information presented by the Lockhart parents and guardians of current students and local elected officials about the issue in order to decide the best plan of action for the 2018-2019 school year.
The board’s action is being interpreted by the residents of the Lockhart Community as a sign that the board is preparing to close Lockhart Elementary/Middle School. This would mean that Lockhart, which saw the board close Lockhart High School — along with Jonesville High School — 11 years ago and consolidate it with Union High School which was subsequently renamed Union County High School, would be without a local school.
If that happens, what will the closing of Lockhart Elementary/Middle School mean to the Town of Lockhart? That question was answered by Ashe who was one of several people to address the board during Monday’s forum. Ashe said that the future of the school is inextricably linked with the future of Lockhart itself, a future that she said could be a very dark one if the board closes the school.
“I would go as far as to say that Lockhart School is the heart of our small town,” Ashe said. “It is so much more than a school, it’s a community center, and a family. Once you close our school, it’s only a matter of time before this beautiful building full of life, love and hope, looks just like the other abandoned schools in the county. As I drive by the old Sims, the Excelsior building, and a few others, I fear for the future.”
Ashe pointed out that “this is a bigger issue than what’s the most efficient way to educate children in our area or the per pupil cost of running the school. This is about our community. It is about maintaining our identity as a community. If we lost this school, like we did the high school eleven years ago, we will lose more of our identity, the negative momentum will continue growing and the building will fall into disrepair which will further impact the community in a negative way.”
The issue of the board’s priorities was also raised by Ashe who asked what they were.
“I ask that as you make this final decision you think about the children,” Ashe said. “What’s more important, the education they receive from a wonderful facility like ours or the money? I ask you to think back eleven years and remind yourself of the broken promises that were made to our community. And I ask that you think about what this school means to the community of Lockhart.”
Information sheets handed out by the school district in the aftermath of the board’s vote on Feb. 26 point out that in 2016-2017 the average per student cost at LEMS was $14,211.68 or almost twice that of Buffalo Elementary ($7,694.82), Foster Park Elementary ($7,664.46), JEMS ($7,680.53), and Monarch Elementary ($7,273.34).
The information sheets also point out the LEMS student population, which currently stands at approximately 150, is projected to decrease to 84 by 2025. Of its current student body, 13 students are attending by special permission, without which they would otherwise be attending Monarch Elementary School (1), Foster Park Elementary School (5), Buffalo Elementary School (2), Jonesville Elementary/Middle School (1), and Sims Middle School (4). Another 13 are from outside the district from Chester (7) and York (6) counties.
Ashe addressed the issues of finances and demographics by proposing a solution that would solve both problems without closing the school.
“Through research, and with the help of the South Carolina Department of Education website I found a few things I have questions about,” Ashe said. “I looked at test scores on the SC Ready and SC PASS testing (and) percentage wise our school fell right in the middle of other schools in the county.
“I’ve seen the newly proposed boundary lines and I question why the boundary lines can be moved to bus children out of Lockhart to overpopulated schools instead of into Lockhart in order to bring the numbers up for our school, she said. “Instead of moving children into our facility, the district has made the decision to bus our kids to schools that are already so overcrowded they are using mobile units.”
Ashe further questioned the financial justifications for closing the school pointing out that “it makes sense our cost per student is higher because the total amount spent is divided by less people (a problem that could easily be fixed by busing more students in, instead of busing out), but it doesn’t make sense to me how the county will save the supposed amount of money they claim to be saving by closing our school. Of course cramming more students into an already overcrowded classroom will be cost effective, but what does that mean for the education of our children? How will losing a school with Title 1 state funding save the district millions of dollars? Where are these savings coming from? Can we, as taxpayers, see the budget? And what are the plans for the money we’re supposedly saving?”
The financial issue was also addressed by Angie Lee, who told the board she has children in the 2nd, 7th, and 8th grades at LEMS. In her address to the board, Lee rejected the idea that the district would reap sizable savings from closing the school. She began by pointing to the salaries and benefits the district is paying the teachers and other staff currently employed at LEMS.
“Payroll is $1,289,027, benefits is $507,769,” Lee said. “This will have to be paid no matter where the staff goes.”
After those costs are subtracted, Lee said this leaves “$257,510 to the budget. You will then be spending an extra $60,000 per year for two extra (bus) drivers to Lockhart. At approximately $111.90 per student a day for operating expenditures. Just for the expenditures for the buses to take 75 of our kids will cost $1,510,650 per year. The gas (at) 23 cents per mile as stated by the Department of Education alone would cost $10,430 a year.”
With all that in mind, Lee said that “you would be spending way more alone on transportation.”
Lee pointed to her three children now attending Lockhart School and asked the board “are you going to send one bus and keep them on there for over an hour to go to Jonesville and Union High or send two buses to my house? Either way, neither makes logical sense. By law no child can be on a bus for over 90 minutes. By factoring in 40 kids to each school you will only be saving $2,277 according to the district’s budget breakdown.”
Taking all this into consideration, Lee said she concluded that the district “will not be saving the projected one million dollar amount.” Instead, Lee said the district will “either break even or spend more.”
Like Ashe, Lee also proposed a solution that would address the demographic and financial issues being cited as the reasons for closing the school, a solution that in doing so would keep Lockhart School open while also benefiting other schools as well.
Lee proposed expanding the Lockhart Elementary/Middle School attendance zone and giving parents the option of sending their students to Lockhart School. She said this would bring the school’s numbers up while lowering them at other schools. She said that in doing so, the student/teacher ratio at other schools would decrease allowing teachers there to spend more time with each of their students like teachers do at Lockhart. As a result, Lee said the district’s test scores would improve.
“This is what matters, a quality education, not money,” Lee said. “Lockhart’s test scores in most subjects are very well. We can improve the schools as long as we don’t look for a quick fix.”
Lee directed her closing comments to Roach.
“Superintendent Roach, on a moral note, as a parent you have children that go to a high school not in our county because they were stable and wanted to graduate there,” Lee said. “If you were willing to do this for your family, why can’t we do the same for ours?”
The board did not take questions or respond to the statements made during the forum, but did vote to meet Monday (March 12) at 6 p.m. in Room 600 of the CATE Center to consider the information received about the issue. The vote was 7-1 with Trustee Mike Massey voting no. Trustee Manning Jeter was not present at the meeting.
More people spoke at Monday’s meeting and, like Ashe and Lee, all of them spoke out against closing Lockhart Elementary/Middle School. To find out what they said see Saturday’s edition of The Union Times and on our website (www.uniondailytimes.com) and our Facebook page.
Charles Warner can be reached at 864-762-4090.