augusta free press news

Why consolidate now?

Column by Chris Graham

I applaud the Staunton Public School system and the Staunton community for the orderly process that surrounded the move to consolidate its four elementary schools into three to help meet a projected big budget shortfall for the upcoming 2010-2011 school system.

The puzzled look on my face as I smack my hands together has to do with how I’m wondering through the applause – if the move makes sense now, why wasn’t it done, say, last year, or the year before?

“I suppose you’re correct … consolidation could have been done at some point in the past,” Staunton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Steven Nichols answered my query to that end in an e-mail exchange Tuesday, a day after the Staunton School Board approved a consolidation plan proposed by Nichols.

The consolidation will convert the Thomas Dixon Elementary School building into a learning center accomodating the city’s preschool and alternative-education programs, with a reconfiguration of elementary-school district lines.

The move will save the city school system approximately $800,000 by allowing for reductions in elementary staffing. A point of emphasis has been that because of existing capacity in the other three elementary-school buildings in the city the reductions in staffing can be achieved without an impact on class sizes or delivery of instruction.

The existing-capacity issue is why I’m not clapping quite as hard as I would like to be at this obviously sensible move. The capacity in elementary-school buildings isn’t something that presented itself this year for the first time. Capacity is what it is, and since the city hasn’t built a new elementary school for some time now, we’re talking about something that’s been in the realm of doable for some time now.

Why wait, then, until there’s a massive budget shortfall to make this move, when the move could have been done a year ago or ostensibly five years ago, to allow for a wiser utilization of budget resources?

“The schools all have a history and strong community connections. Judging from the comments from the public that addressed the history, sense of community, etc., etc., etc., it would have been very difficult to have done the consolidation sooner,” Nichols answered me on that.

It’s hard to argue with that. We followed here in our home base of Waynesboro the machinations over the different approach being considered by school-system leaders to their own budget issues that had the Waynesboro School Board considering realigning its four elementary schools into two K-2 schools and two 3-5 schools. The outcry that resulted was largely rooted in concerns over losing, yep, those community connections that Nichols cited over in Staunton.

“In our present economic climate it was a bit easier for everyone to see the need to save,” Nichols said. “I am grateful many citizens who were upset over consolidation came to support it because they saw the terrible drubbing we took from the state on funding, and surrendered their feelings about the history, etc., of the school to embrace doing what was right for the entire system.”

And I get that. It’s just human nature that we are better at taking our medicine than we are at thinking in terms of preventive medicine. Same as we all tend to turn the heat up more than we need to when we get cold, or crank the AC too high when we’re warm, or take too many aspirin when we have a headache.

There’s something hardwired into us to live for today and worry about tomorrow … well, tomorrow, if we can’t even put tomorrow off for another day.

I’d clap a lot harder if Staunton Public Schools had made this move in 2006 at the recent height of the economy and said that it was doing so simply because it made sense to consolidate and divert the resources that went to running four elementary schools when we could do the same quality job with three either to other, even better educational purposes or to the city to commit to other city needs or to return to the taxpayers to do with the money saved as they saw fit.

I’m still applauding, mind you. I’d just like to see us recognize that there is a better way of doing things, and it shouldn’t always take a crisis to make us think that way.