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Filling a $28 million hole
School board considers some troubling reductions
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There may be bright spots in the nation’s economic outlook, but the Savannah-Chatham school board doesn’t see any.

At its May 6 meeting, the board considered some drastic measures to fill a projected $28 million shortfall in revenues. The district is anticipating a reduction of 303 staff members, and the board was asked to consider cuts to the Oatland Island Wildlife Center and the deletion of middle school athletics.

Board member Susu Cox said a proposal to cut the Oatland teaching staff from five to one is too extreme. Cox said the district’s "crown jewels" are Oatland and the Massie Heritage Center. "I think a real balance in weighing decisions like this tells the public about the direction we’re taking these programs," she said.

Under a proposal, four Oatland teachers would be replaced by naturalists. "If we’re going to a tourist facility trying to attract business, we need to remember the primary purpose of Oatland is a wildlife education center," Cox said.

"The struggle with Oatland has gone on for years," she said. "It is an absolutely fabulous facility and I have concerns with pulling the majority of its teachers out. I can’t support that."

Superintendent Thomas Lockamy the district currently is very short on science teachers at the high school level and the Oatland teachers are needed elsewhere. He said the Oatland teachers teach from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on days that weather permits.

"It’s a pretty good job to teach from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on fair days," Lockamy said. "I value those teachers, but at the same time, we need more teachers in the classrooms."

Board member Julie Gerbsch noted that the board hasn’t had a presentation on the plans for Oatland. "I highly encourage the superintendent to look at flexibility," she said.

"So many times we think of school as being between 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.," Gerbsch said. "If in fact the driver for this is that we need science teachers in other classroom locations, maybe we could allow the educational focus to continue at Oatland with certified teachers but somehow also utilize those teachers in classrooms. My overriding concern is this sends the wrong message if we get rid of certified teachers."

Teachers at Oatland are available to assist classes, but having five in all isn’t justified, Lockamy said. "We’re providing teachers who are also working with students from other counties," he said. "I have a little difficulty with that, as well.

"I’m trying to get a balance," Lockamy said. "I’m very proud of Oatland. I care about animals and the environment, but at the same time, I must look at how we are utilizing funds."

Board member Lori Brady said in most cases, students are accompanied to Oatland by a science teacher. "Why can’t they teach them?" she asked.

Brady said the focus must remain on the budget. "It’s going to get to the point where we have to grab every penny and rebudget every penny not to raise taxes on the community," she said.

"Going from five to one teachers to me is unacceptable, but there could be a compromise there," Cox said. "In the big scheme of things, the savings is insignificant. The reasoning behind the change is weak.

"If we’re going to compromise, everyone needs to compromise," she said. "It doesn’t seem like we’re being very creative here. I think this will bring negative feelings from the public."

Board member Alexander Luten said Oatland’s program means a lot to students. "We need to take a second look at that because children are benefiting from that program," he said. "I’ve been out there and observed. Let’s take a second thought and make sure we try to continue this program."

"Regardless of the outcome, the number one thing is education and we realize learning will not stop because of this budget," board president Joe Buck said. "If we can’t discuss and be flexible and come to agreements, we are not going to get through this budget crisis. I’m convinced the staff and superintendent have been working hard and will make the best decisions for the district."

As hard as the discussion about Oatland was, it paled into comparison at the suggestion of eliminating middle school athletics. "I actually choked when I read that last night," Gerbsch said. "Middle school athletics is part of the whole experience."

Cutting middle school athletics would save $267,000. "I’ll vote down the whole budget before I approve that," Gerbsch said.

"I was shocked, as well," Brady said. "Athletics are important to the whole child, not only for educational purposes, but for lifetime purposes.

"I’m not going to say I’ll vote down the whole budget over it, but you can’t do away with middle school athletics," she said. "We must find another way to fund it. Students need to be part of a team and learning everything that comes with that. We might as well eliminate high school athletics, because there are not going to be any athletes if we eliminate athletics in middle school."

Lockamy pointed out that intramural athletic competitions would continue. "There would be an opportunity for schools to work with each other," he said.

"In the original middle school concept, there were no competitive athletics," Lockamy said. "That didn’t play out across the country because everyone wanted to see Johnny kick the football."

"I inherited a lot of things when I came on the school board - the good, bad and ugly," board member Floyd Adams said. "Right now, I’m dealing with the ugly.

"I’d like to know where the redesign money is in this whole concept," he said. "We’re eliminating $2 million in textbooks, and talking about eliminating athletics. Those things bother me.

"We’re eliminating 50 bus routes," Adams said. "How is that going to affect the schools? These are things I’m concerned with overall. What programs are we actually going to lose?"

"I know this wasn’t intentional, but these are hot buttons that have been touched," Cox said. "I can’t help but think there are some cooler buttons in there.

"What all of us need to do is go through the entire budget with a fine-tooth comb," she said. "Times are probably going to get tougher before they get better. I’m open to look at everything, and I mean everything.

"This is probably one of the hardest budget years since maybe 2000, but I think we need to see the bigger, clearer picture," Cox said. "I think we’re going to have to keep digging deeper than what we are now."

Board member Irene Hines said not every program can be saved. "We’re not going to be able to save everything we personally want to save and not increase taxes," she said. "Therefore, we might have to give up some of the things we want to see.

"I love middle school sports because they help develop the whole child, but we’re going to have to find some things to give up," Hines said. "We don’t want to increase taxes, we don’t want teachers to lose their positions."

"We already have a disproportionate level of parents who pull their children from the district now," Gerbsch said. "If the board does something so draconian, there will be even more. Any gains we might get by cutting, we’ll lose."

Hines said that scenario isn’t likely. "With the economy in the shape it’s in, we aren’t going to be losing many," she said.

On the bright side, while 50 bus routes are being eliminated, bus service itself won’t be affected. Also, those teachers and staff who are RIFed will likely be offered a position before the school year starts, Lockamy said.

Some positions will be vacated by teachers who are retiring or moving away from the district and their positions will be filled by those people who are being RIFed. "I believe the majority of people will be continuing in a teaching position," Lockamy said. "A majority if not all will be rehired even as they get the letter that we have to RIF."

Lockamy said he and his staff will go back to the drawing board. "I’ve given my professional opinion where I think we need to make reductions," he said. "We’ll come back again to get additional information at the next workshop. If anyone has ideas of ways to reduce costs, save funds, I’d appreciate any feedback."

There are no sacred cows in this year’s budget, Buck said. "It’s always hard doing what we’re having to do," he said. "If you find something you can’t bear to be cut, look in the budget to see where same amount can be cut."

A public hearing on the budget will be held May 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Whitney Administrative Complex.

In other action, the board agreed to make Isle of Hope Elementary a pre-K through eighth-grade school. It also agreed to keep Hodge Elementary operating in its current location for at least one more year as a neighborhood school.

Lockamy said original plans called for Hodge to be torn down to make way for a new high school. However, an outcry from parents caused him to reconsider. "Because of the age and condition of the current facility, we will continue to explore options," Lockamy said.

Under the district’s redesign plan, now being called Passport to Excellence, Hodge will become a medical sciences pathway school, with Derenne Middle and Beach High School also serving as pathways in medical sciences. Open enrollment will be offered for the 2010-11 school year.

Because the 50-year-old Hodge has structural problems, something will have to be done, Lockamy said. All of the options would be expensive, he said, but he supports upgrading Hodge because he believes so strongly in neighborhood schools.

"As a voter and taxpayer, we have made an implicit series of promises," Gerbsch said. "Now three years later, we’re going to undo something in the plans."

Hines said Hodge parents want the same benefits for their children as other parents do. "They pay taxes, maybe not as much, but they pay them," she said.

Lockamy pointed out that he isn’t asking that students stay at the same site, but rather to stay in the same area. He asked the board for its support.

"Otherwise we’re going to have to start moving teachers and redesigning bus routes," Lockamy said. "I’m asking to keep the children in their neighborhood and then give me some options.

"I never had any idea in 2005 that the community would be so supportive of neighborhood schools," he said. "This community has rallied around that concept."