CHESTER -- Fearful of losing their middle and high schools, Great Falls residents blasted Chester County school officials Tuesday night about the potential merging of their schools with rival Lewisville.
"We are proud members of this county," Great Falls Mayor H.C. "Speedy" Starnes told the school board. "We have undergone a serious loss of jobs. ... But Great Falls is moving. We're coming back. And we don't need this thrown on Great Falls to help kill Great Falls."
Starnes was among hundreds of people who packed into the Chester County school district office Tuesday night to hear school board members talk about consolidating some schools, including rivals Lewisville and Great Falls.
By 5:30 p.m. few parking spaces were available and a line stretched across the front of the office. The doors remained closed until 6 p.m. when the crowd filed in, filling all the chairs, lining the walls and forming a line that snaked out the door.
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High school consolidation has been discussed in Chester County for years, but the conversation recently became more pressing after drastic cuts in state funding.
South Carolina has carved roughly $334 million from public education since July as state revenue dwindles. Chester County schools have lost more than $2 million in state funding.
Because the district expects to receive less money, school officials must trim next year's budget. Officials originally said that number would be $5 million, but on Tuesday they said it could be as low as $3.9 million.
Officials project that closing the middle and high schools in Great Falls would save between $1.7 million and $1.8 million.
About 40 staff positions would be eliminated in the consolidation, which would affect about 540 students.
The school board also is looking at combining the three elementary schools in the Chester Park complex into two schools.
Officials already have planned to end the year-round calendar at the Chester Park Elementary School of Inquiry this spring. They project a complex consolidation would save $1.3 million with 33 positions being cut.
No decisions made
No consolidation decisions were made during Tuesday's meeting and the only time the topic came up was when a few people from the crowd were allowed to talk during a 30-minute public hearing.
That's when Starnes questioned the ability of Lewisville schools to hold the extra students from Great Falls. Other residents worried about the safety of transporting students to Lewisville and one woman wondered if placing the rival students together would lead to gun violence.
Glenn Ross, a Great Falls parent with children in both middle and high school, said school employees' salaries should be slashed rather than closing schools.
"You don't want Great Falls to prosper," he told the board. "But by God, we're going to fight you until the fight is over."
Instead of hashing out the consolidation issue Tuesday, board members said they would meet with residents at another date to answer questions about combining schools.
But that subject was why so many people showed up.
Joe and Teresa Snead, who got to the district office around 5:10 p.m. to be sure they had a seat for the 7 p.m. meeting, wanted to hear the facts about the district's consolidation plans so they could filter out the rumors.
Joe, a Great Falls alumnus, and Teresa, a Lewisville graduate, now live in Great Falls, and their children graduated from Great Falls High School.
The couple hopes the school board will keep the Great Falls schools open. With the town's textile mills long closed, the Sneads said, the schools are what local people cling to.
"If they take the schools away, it's almost like they're going to finish it," Teresa said. "There really won't be much of Great Falls left."