Board hesitant to close schools

Published 11:56 pm Friday, February 18, 2011

School Board members said Thursday they want to consider all their options before they will think about closing schools.

Following a public hearing where teachers and parents expressed their concerns about the school closings, many of the members defended keeping one or both of the schools open.

“We need to treat the teachers and parents who came here with dignity,” School Board chairman Michael Debranski said.

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Superintendent Deran Whitney included closing Florence Bowser and Mount Zion elementary schools in his proposed budget.

Board vice chair Thelma Hinton commended parents and teachers for standing up for their schools, and she encouraged others to visit the schools and see the great work they are doing.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover until you have read the book,” she said, echoing an earlier comment from a Florence Bowser Elementary School parent. “I will stand as a ‘no’ vote in March.”

The two closings are expected to result in a decrease of 22 positions. The administration hopes to move those staff to other positions that are vacated through retirements or resignations.

In addition, the budget includes no raises for any school staff. The school system had to make up for a decrease in state funding of about $4.2 million.

The School Board also approved offering a retirement incentive for teachers aged 50 or older with at least 30 years of experience. There are 140 teachers eligible for the incentive. It is expected to save about $500,000.

Many of the School Board members told those in the audience to contact their political representatives and tell them their concerns.

“I definitely want to do what is best for the students,” said member Enoch Copeland.

Copeland suggested keeping Florence Bowser open for the growing North Suffolk population.

“This budget doesn’t just affect the closing of two of the schools,” said School Board member Phyllis Byrum. “It will affect all of the schools because we will have to shuffle money.”

Someone also brought up the question of how much it would cost to move mobile units to other schools. Whitney explained that it would cost around $5,000 to move and connect utilities for each unit, for a total of around $90,000.

Hinton asked the superintendent how much the school system would be able to save in energy costs by “going dark” each night. Whitney said the school system has decided to leave some lights on at night because of vandalism that was occurring when the lights were out.

The School Board will meet again on March 10 to discuss the budget. They will also meet on March 15 at 3 p.m. The location will be announced.