Set in stone?

Published 10:21 pm Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Letter to teachers implies schools will be closed;

School system says it’s the same letter shared with board members

Suffolk Public Schools staff got an emailed letter from the superintendent Tuesday that seemed to indicate the school division will move forward with a proposal to close two elementary schools.

The letter came less than a week after School Board members said they wanted Superintendent Deran Whitney to examine all the options available before they vote on the proposal to close Florence Bowser and Mount Zion elementary schools.

However, school officials say the missive was simply a mostly-unedited version of the transmittal letter that went to School Board members.

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“It is our practice to share (repeat) this explanation letter directly with the staff via an email from the Superintendent to all staff,” Suffolk Public Schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw said in an email Wednesday.

Indeed, a copy of the message obtained by the News-Herald is nearly identical to the letter attached to the budget. It was edited only to make it appropriate for staff rather than the School Board — for example, by deleting the last paragraph that originally indicated it was for the School Board’s “consideration and discussion.”

The letter reads, in part, “After two prior years of substantial budget cuts (state and local totaling nearly $16 million), we find that we must now follow through with the closing of Florence Bowser and Mount Zion Elementary Schools.”

Bradshaw said that portion of the letter remained unedited because the proposal has not changed.

“Some verbs could have been changed before the letter was sent to staff, but they were not,” she said. “It is the same proposal now as it was Feb. 10 because the board has not taken a vote to make changes.”

Closing the two schools will result in the elimination of 22 positions. Whitney has said he hopes to find jobs for those people elsewhere in the system by moving them to newly vacated positions.

Some School Board members countered the implication that the closing of the schools is set in stone.

“This is not a done deal,” said Thelma Hinton, vice chair of the School Board. “To say this in the letter, I am having some problems with that.”

School Board member Linda Bouchard said her phone already was ringing Tuesday evening about the letter.

“Until we go through the budget carefully, I don’t see it (closing schools) as inevitable,” she said. “I hope we don’t have to close them.”

Bouchard added that she is concerned about how the closings will affect families.

“I don’t see what is to be gained by closing those two schools,” she said. “It’s a terrible position for us to be in right now.”

Though Bouchard said she would have liked to have known beforehand that the letter was being sent, she was glad the superintendent was communicating with the staff.

“I believe it was the superintendent’s way of dispensing to his staff the financial position that our schools are in, and I believe it is justified,” she said. “He did the right thing to dispel rumors about it.”

Several opportunities for school staff and the public to learn more about the budget are coming up.

The superintendent’s open door night will be held Feb. 28. Anyone can meet with the superintendent or an assistant superintendent from 5 to 7 p.m. without an appointment at the school systems’ administrative offices, 100 N. Main St. Participants are seen in the order in which they sign in.

The School Board has set a special budget work session for March 1 at 10 a.m. at King’s Fork High School. Budget discussion will continue at the regular meeting on March 10 at 7 p.m. in City Council chambers, 441 Market St. Another special meeting March 15 will be held for the School Board to approve the budget that will be sent to City Council.

Reporter Heather McGinley contributed to this article.