CHESTER -- With a plan to merge Great Falls and Lewisville schools nixed, Chester County district officials don't know how they'll trim millions from next year's budget.
"Who knows?" asked board member Denise Lawson. "We're still kind of in the dark."
Leaders met Monday night, their first regular board meeting since the Feb. 12 vote to pull the consolidation plan, but most of their budget discussion was about expected state cuts, not the board's response.
"We have some pretty difficult decisions we're going to have to make," said Chairman Richard Hughes. "Sooner than later."
Some items on the table include combining the three Chester Park elementary schools into two. District officials say that move would save $1.3 million, with 33 positions being cut. Officials expect to increase class sizes next school year, meaning fewer teachers will be needed.
Leaders are considering not hiring any working retirees, people who retired at least a year ago but had returned to work for the district. Not hiring any working retirees is projected to save $317,000.
Officials don't want to dip into the district's $8.6 million reserve fund to balance next year's budget, but some board members say that's inevitable.
Despite these options, board members are unsure of where they'll find the needed savings. Leaders plan to trim at least $3.9 million from next year's budget.
"I don't know that there's any clear-cut answer as to what we're going to do," said board member Jeff Kerr.
School systems across the state are grappling with how to manage with less money. South Carolina has carved roughly $334 million from public education since July as state revenue dwindles.
Chester County schools, according to district figures, have lost more than $2 million in state funding this academic year, and officials anticipate more cuts will come.
So why was the Great Falls/Lewisville proposal scrapped? Board members contend their decision mainly was based on the cost-saving suggestions of school principals. Those ideas included eliminating certain teaching positions, using fewer light bulbs, even limiting the number of copies teachers can make.
"That basically led me to think maybe there are other ways to skin this cat," Kerr said of the suggestions. "You think the small things don't mean anything, but they really do. ... They mean a lot."
Lawson echoed those thoughts. She said the savings from those suggestions added up to the $1.7 to $1.8 million the district would have saved by closing Great Falls middle and high schools and sending those students to Lewisville.
"You're not going to find five million dollars sitting in one line item," she said. "But you may find five million dollars five thousand at a time."
Lawson and Kerr said the public outcry over Great Falls and Lewisville was overblown.
"When that first came up, it was a suggestion," Lawson said. "It got way, way out of hand. ... It was never a done deal."
Though she acknowledged she was affected by the community response to the consolidation discussion, Lawson said her conscience determined her vote, though she can't explain her reasoning.
"I can't tell you why," she said.
Kerr also noted that he questioned the logistics of the Great Falls/Lewisville consolidation proposal and never found out how much the proposal would actually cost.
Cost-cutting ideas will be discussed further at a budget workshop, which will likely be held next week.