February 13, 2009

Chester County won't merge schools

Chester County school officials on Thursday night scrapped a plan to merge Great Falls middle and high schools with those in Lewisville.

CHESTER -- Chester County school officials on Thursday night scrapped a plan to merge Great Falls middle and high schools with those in Lewisville.

School board member Jeff Kerr said the unanimous vote came after the third and final community forum about school consolidation in Chester County.

The board didn't give a reason for taking the proposal off the table, Kerr said. He noted that the leaders anticipate they'll get some financial flexibility from the state, though he didn't elaborate.

State officials have been considering legislation that would allow districts to furlough teachers rather than resort to layoffs because of budget cuts. The bill would allow district officials to negotiate salaries with retired teachers who return to the classroom. Those salaries can be below the state minimum.

The board voted as the Great Falls boys basketball team played at Lewisville on Thursday night. When Great Falls High Principal Corey Murphy got a call about the decision, he spread word through the stands. Fans erupted in applause.

"We need this very badly," Murphy said later. "It was killing morale."

Talk of closing the school had hurt students' classroom performance, Murphy said.

"I want kids to worry about education, not the future of the school," he said. "I think this will go a long way to getting us back on track."

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 by at least $3.9 million.

Officials projected that closing the middle and high schools in Great Falls would have saved between $1.7 million and $1.8 million. About 40 staff positions would have been eliminated.

Ironically, the forum at Chester Middle School wasn't about Great Falls and Lewisville but about another proposal to combine the three Chester Park elementary schools into two.

Officials already have planned to end the year-round calendar at the Chester Park Elementary School of Inquiry this spring. They project a consolidation at the complex would save $1.3 million, with 33 positions being cut.

Consolidating Chester Park is still being considered, Kerr said.

At the Lewisville gym, Great Falls fans enjoyed two victories. The Red Devils won by 30 points.

"We're winning on both sides tonight," said Glenn Ross, a Great Falls parent with children in both middle and high school.

Despite being routed by their rival, Lewisville fans also were smiling after the game.

"I didn't want (the schools) to consolidate because they would have to change the name of the school," said Elizabeth Anderson, a 16-year-old Lewisville High cheerleader who will be a senior next year. "I want to graduate from Lewisville."

Laura Busby, a Lewisville mother who urged school officials at a Monday forum not to merge the rivals, said the community will be ecstatic about the decision.

"They came to their senses," she said of the school board. "Finally."

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