Examining school consolidation

Published 11:32 am Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Amid talks of potentially consolidating the county’s elementary schools across Charlotte County, officials continue to weigh and explore options regarding the pros and cons of the idea.

“Consolidating the schools would provide improved facilities for learning, activities, health and safety and improve the opportunities for our students and our entire population,” said Red House/Cullen Supervisor Dr. Nancy Carwile. “The money we are currently spending to keep five schools open is money that could be used to benefit all our students — not just the ones in the outdated schools.” 

The county currently has five schools: Eureka Elementary, Bacon District Elementary, Phenix Elementary, Central Middle School and Randolph-Henry High.

“Charlotte County has always been a leader in our education programs, but keeping our schools as they were in previous generations is not preparing our children for the 21st century,” Carwile said. “Nor is it going to attract the jobs we want for our graduates.”

Carwile recently sent The Gazette data regarding the school division, including a chart detailing school finances and one including a culmination of school funding estimates from 2015 studies.

Division Superintendent Dr. Nancy Leonard said currently the two options being considered include renovating Bacon and Phenix elementary schools or building a new 550-student consolidated school to combine the two.

According to information provided by Carwile, the option to construct a new 550-student school, while closing Bacon and Phenix elementary schools, would produce an estimated annual staffing savings of $335,000, an estimated annual energy and operations savings of $3,200 and an annual financing cost, including annual cost/savings, of about $1.4 million.

Charlotte County’s Six Year Capital Improvement Plan includes the option for a consolidated 550-student school, which would combine Phenix and Bacon while addressing urgent needs at Eureka. The cost would be around $21.3 million.

According to Carwile, if all three elementary schools were renovated and added on to, then there would be an estimated annual cost of $594,000, an estimated annual energy and operations cost of $89,300 and an annual financing cost, including annual costs/savings of about $2.4 million.

According to Carwile, the information and calculations were used with a 2015 Dewberry and Davis School Facilities Study, while operational costs and savings were based on a 2015 budget study by school board administration and financing costs were derived from Davenport and Company.

A basic capital improvement plan, including a classroom addition at Phenix Elementary, could cost about $9 million. An option to fund the basic capital improvement plan, including a classroom addition at Phenix and activity rooms at Bacon and Phenix, comes with a price tag of about $11 million.

“Several … who want to close (schools) use an incorrect model about saving money, but never mentioned anything about the interest payment on a $20 million school,” said Bacon/Saxe District School Board Member Jon Berkley.

He believes it would be more cost-effective to repair the buildings.

“The school board is gathering information on the costs and educational impact of these two options now that the full consolidation option was denied by the board of supervisors and Eureka is now being renovated,” Leonard said.

A $3 million HVAC repair project was recently agreed to improve conditions at Eureka Elementary School.

She said the benefits of renovation include family involvement, noting smaller schools help ensure activity and traffic within the designated town supports local businesses.

“If the community schools are closed, it is a concern as to how these buildings will be repurposed or if they can be repurposed by the community,” Leonard said.

On the other hand, she said building a consolidated 550-student school would include an updated design, meeting current standards.

“Consolidation offers cost savings to operate because of increased energy efficiency, reduction in staffing needs, and not having to duplicate services between schools,” Leonard said.

Drakes Branch Supervisor Garland Hamlett Jr. said he believes Bacon and Phenix elementary need to be renovated, calling the work as less costly overall.

Hamlett said the result would have a better impact on the students and parents. In addition, he said the loss of community identity would occur with consolidation.

“It just takes time to work these things out,” said School Board Chairman and County Seat Supervisor Larry Fannon.

Neighboring Campbell County recently engaged its citizenry in a discussion regarding school consolidation.

“As you would expect, some citizens were opposed and others in favor,” said Division Superintendent Dr. Robert Johnson. “We used a consultant who thoroughly engaged the community through committees and multiple meetings. After over a year, the committee recommended consolidation to the school board.”

“The school board is taking this responsibility very seriously …,” Leonard said.