Both votes were 4-1, with Charles Rittenhouse (Cunningham District) dissenting.
“I don’t think it came as a surprise to anyone. It is tough times. We have financial constraints we have to live with,” said Brenda Pace (Palmyra District).
The two remaining community schools have been discussed for closing multiple times and have survived each scare. It was first brought up as part of the ‘Domino Plan.’ Last year, once the new high school building was completed, the School Board decided to keep both open while still letting the other ‘dominoes’ fall.
This time the budget finally did them in.
The move to close both will save the county no more than $750,000 although the real number might be closer to $650,000, superintendent Gena Keller admits. The bulk of the savings is less need for staff.
The School Board’s ‘reduction in force’ policy is primarily based on seniority within the district, however there are other mitigating factors. Reducing the workforce will not just be limited to staff assigned to those buildings now, it will be done district-wide using the policy.
The reduction could occur through attrition; employees voluntarily separating from the district
The closures will eliminate about 20 positions, ranging from teachers, aides, administrators, cafeteria workers, custodial staff, bus drivers and other building personnel.
This decision was made in February to let staff who will be affected know early in the process.
“As hard of a decision as it is to make, I applaud the board for making the decision in February and not April,” said chairwoman Camilla Washington (Columbia District).
Now all early education students will attend Central Elementary School. School Board Office staff predicts the average class sizes for the four grades (kindergarten through third grade) will increase by two to four students per grade.
If staff estimates are correct, every grade will have at least 21 students per class. The highest average could be 24 students per class in the third grade.
Central Elementary School’s student population will increase to just under 830 students, if using the average daily membership numbers for January 2013.
Central also houses the preschool speciality program which had an ADM of 72 students in the same month. The preschool ADM is not included in Central’s student population, but is under the same roof.
The building’s capacity is 1,100 students, although that is the physical building number. That isn’t dependent on program use. Combination of the three schools and preschool will put the building population at 900 students.
There are some small positives to come out of the decision to close the schools.
The district can utilize three bus ‘waves’ for students. Kindergarten through second, third through seventh and secondary education can all have separate bus routes. The move could utilize double runs for buses between the first and third wave.
This will cut down on average time on the bus. Some students are spending over an hour to an hour and a half on the bus. This could potentially drop the time to 30 to 45 minutes.
Also the system can zero in more diligently to an ‘equitable focus’ for all students. Keeping students in one building makes it easier for staff to ensure all students receive the same opportunities, something Keller mentioned after her contract renewal announcement.
Columbia and Cunningham schools will now go the route of Palmyra and Fork Union schools, the last two community schools to close. Closing Fork Union is something Bertha Armstrong (Fork Union District) remembers well, she had children in that school at the time.
“The decision I made was not one that was easy. I thought about the times in the past, back years ago, we have to close this school (Palmyra) [and] Fork Union School, people were upset,” said Armstrong.
Armstong said while she understood each community’s support of the local school, she said she ‘grew to love Central’ too.
“Change in my opinion always gives us the opportunity to make things better,” said Carol Tracy Carr (Rivanna District).
One opportunity the district is examining is a ‘school within a school.’ The idea is to make the west entrance of Central Elementary an ‘early primary’ school for grades
kindergarten and first grade preschool and kindergarten (see below). Then second and third first and second grade would be the rest of the building. The west side of the building is the newest addition, completed in the late 1990s.
“I think there are creative things, ideas that we can come up with that are advantageous for our children,” said Pace.
‘West Central School’ would have to have its own school code to be considered a different school. It would allow the district to receive Virginia Public School Authority funds for operating a school. VPSA gives $26,000 a year for a school that took attendance in the proceeding fall.
Next the School Board will have to decide to keep the buildings or declare them surplus. If they are declared surplus, the buildings would be given back to the Board of Supervisors.
The closed buildings will still require a staff member to be in each building six to eight hours a week to keep up with general maintenance. There also would still be a basic utility costs because those cannot be shutoff and insurance premiums for each building.
Editor’s note: Previous version of this article incorrectly listed grades of Central Elementary School. Third and fourth grades will stay at Carysbrook Elementary School. Central will house students from preschool to second grade.