CHESTER -- Students at two rival schools could become classmates in the fall, and many residents are livid at the prospect.
Chester County school officials are considering closing Great Falls middle and high schools and moving those students to Lewisville schools.
No decision has been made, but the proposal has infuriated many Great Falls residents, who fear their children will be stuffed into overcrowded classrooms and the town will lose a key element of its identity.
"This has definitely gotten Great Falls in an uproar," said Christina Dixon, a Great Falls mother of three. "Something you shouldn't play with is education, and that's exactly what they're doing."
High school consolidation has been discussed in Chester County for years, but the conversation recently became more pressing after drastic cuts in state funding.
Sizable trimming is necessary
South Carolina has carved roughly $334 million from public education since July as state revenue dwindles. Chester County schools have lost about $2.3 million in state funding.
Because the district expects to receive less money, school officials must trim next year's budget by $5 million.
That's why the consolidation talk has gotten louder.
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.
Tonight, school board members will meet at 7 p.m. to grapple with the budget. Board member Jeff Kerr said he doesn't expect the board will vote to close any schools tonight, but a decision about whether to do that should come soon.
"I don't know what we're going to do, but I know that we're going to have to close some schools somewhere," Kerr said. "When you cut $5 million out of a budget like ours, I don't know where you make it up."
Kerr cautioned that Lewisville and Great Falls are not the only schools being considered for consolidation.
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.
But the proposed Chester Park merger hasn't ignited the backlash that the talk about combining Lewisville Lions and Great Falls Red Devils has.
Leaders expect to see that frustration at tonight's meeting.
"We understand they're going to be packing the house," Kerr said. "And that's OK. I want them to. I would expect them to do that."
Some Great Falls churches plan to bus people to Tuesday's meeting. Fliers bearing the message "Save our School" have been posted around town, urging residents to attend to speak out against the consolidation. Even the Great Falls Town Council passed a resolution stating its members opposition to the merger.
"It's devastating," said Tina Trent, mother to first-, second- and ninth- grade students in Great Falls schools. "Not only to our schools, but ... it's basically going to close our town."
Trent fears many people will leave the small town if the schools close. She also worries about tensions between Great Falls and Lewisville kids if the traditional rivals are forced to go to school together.
"It may be dangerous," she said.
Although class sizes would increase in a merger, officials maintain that Lewisville Middle School has enough room to absorb the Great Falls students, and Lewisville High School will only need two mobile classrooms to contain the extra pupils.
But some parents fear that such a move will make classes too large and hinder learning.
"What quality of education are my children going to be getting?" Dixon asked. "You're not talking about expanding these schools. You're talking about compacting these schools."
After her husband's medical discharge from the military, Dixon's family moved back to Great Falls just over a year ago, mainly because her daughter wanted to graduate with the class she'd left in the sixth grade.
Her daughter will be a senior in the fall.
Dixon said she's not worried about the rivalry. Her main concern is her children's learning opportunities.
"We're not high up on the education totem pole to begin with," she said, noting that other states have higher test scores. "It's just crazy. ... I don't know why there's not any other alternative fixes to this."
Even residents who don't have children in the school system are angry about the proposal.
Sallie Hudson, who runs two businesses in Great Falls, worries that the old schools will fall into disrepair. She also believes the district can cut in other areas.
"We just love our little town," she said. "It's a very friendly, open-minded community that takes care of their own. And we don't need to be bused to Lewisville. I don't think the Lewisville folks would like to see their mascot with a devil head on it."
What are they talking about?
Chester County school officials are considering merging some schools, including rivals Great Falls and Lewisville.
Because of state funding cuts, school board members will meet tonight at the district office to discuss how they will slash $5 million from next year's budget. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. Some options on the table include:
-- Closing Great Falls middle and high schools and moving those students to Lewisville schools. Officials say the move would affect about 540 local students and save between $1.7 million and $1.8 million. About 40 staff positions would be eliminated in the consolidation.
-- Combining the three elementary schools in the Chester Park complex into two schools. Officials have already planned to end the year-round calendar at the Chester Park Elementary School of Inquiry this spring. Officials project the consolidation would save $1.3 million, and 33 positions would be eliminated.