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BoE grilled over purchase, furloughs
Lily Baker - photo by Courier file photo
The low-key tenor of Thursday’s town hall meeting didn’t prevent teachers and parents from posing questions on some heated issues to the Liberty County Board of Education. Answers about teacher furloughs and the purpose behind the board’s recent purchase of the Brewton-Parker campus in Hinesville remained high on the list for many of the 100 or so people who attended.
The board opened the meeting by clarifying some details behind the acquisition of the Brewton-Parker College campus, namely that the purchase was made with SPLOST dollars, which, according to a handout from the district, were approved by voters to address such needs as “acquiring, constructing and equipping school buildings and other buildings or facilities useful or desirable” to the district. Listed among the examples is a performing arts center, which the board reiterated was considered the primary purpose of the facility.
In responding to a parent’s question about the reason behind the purchase, BoE Chairwoman Lily Baker said, “There were many different reasons to purchase a fine arts building. We got it at a very good price; $2 million wasn’t just to purchase the auditorium. And we did not have any empty facilities [similar to the campus auditorium].” Baker said the surplus space could be beneficial if problems arise with school facilities that render classrooms unfit for use.
Baker added that buying the campus is no different than purchasing or building a gym or an athletic field. “The children in fine arts deserve something as well as the children in athletics,” she said, calling the purchase an investment in the children’s futures.
Board member Marcia Anderson estimated the cost to build a similar facility from the ground up anywhere from $6 million to $10 million, making the opportunity to purchase a ready facility for $2 million more ideal, particularly when it would only be used a few times a year.

Sharing the burden

Another audience member asked why the board did not partner with city leaders to purchase the campus, saying that many residents who are not affiliated with the school system could have a need for such a facility.
Anderson said early discussions had been held with city and county leaders to cooperatively bring a civic center or auditorium for public use to the county, but to her knowledge “they have never shown enough interest to move forward.”
Board member Carol Guyett said, “I cannot imagine anyone having more use for this than Liberty County schools.”
Baker also countered claims that the deal was made too quickly without prior public input by explaining that the board conferred with an attorney about the purchase, something the board does “behind closed doors.”
“One, we’re elected to make those decisions. Two, when someone finds out there’s a county entity interested [in real estate], the price goes up,” she said. “We wanted to live up to the voters’ expectations. It was not a hurry-up, it was one education facility wanting to [sell] this to another education facility” for essentially the cost of its debt.
One woman asked whether funding was available for other school buildings and maintenance needs, specifically Coastal Academy in Hinesville. The woman said the academy’s building is old and in need of heating upgrades as well as repairs to fix leaks. Baker said she was not aware of the academy’s maintenance issues and that to date the board has not discussed a new facility for the academy, which serves the needs of students with emotional and behavioral issues.

Room for technical education?

Liberty County High School agriculture science teacher Jeci Crane asked board members whether classroom space at the old college campus would be made available to help her department expand its offerings to students. “We have more than enough students to fill ag classes,” Crane said. “Would you consider putting classes in this building?”
Baker took the opportunity then to remind attendees of the board’s desire to start a career academy, possibly in conjunction with Savannah Technical College. This mention resulted in some confusion later in the meeting when teachers asked whether the newly purchased campus would be used solely for the arts or become a career academy as well.
Baker and others then reiterated the campus’ current purpose is to serve as a place for performing arts and that no other plans for the classroom space have been made. Plans for the career academy rest on locating or using facilities elsewhere in the county.

Saving salaries

Scattered throughout the 90-minute meeting were questions about whether the board was looking at ways to cut spending outside teacher salaries. One man asked if members considered moving to a four-day workweek to save on district utilities. Baker and Guyett replied that even in saving on utilities, salaries would still suffer because employees such as bus drivers, maintenance personnel and cafeteria workers would feel more of a pinch than if they only received cuts from furlough days.
“We’d save, but we’d be trading one problem for another,” Baker said. Anderson added that getting hit with three furlough days, though painful, is less painful than losing one day’s pay a week.
Furlough days were not off the chopping block, as a few teachers asked whether the cuts could be spread over six months instead of three, or whether furlough days could be assigned during the summer so students wouldn’t lose out on class time.
A couple teachers reiterated the hits they would take with furlough days — some said they would lose more than $300 every furlough day and taking such a hit three months in a row is a strain on their pocketbooks.
Board members said that because the state has not set its budget, the governor’s pledge to schools that only three days would be necessary is not set in stone. Baker said they hope to know by mid-April whether more days will come down the pike. Knowing that, the board said it doesn’t want to assess furlough cuts all at once and would rather take out one a month as early in the year as possible.
As far as classroom time is concerned, Baker said the days have been lengthened to give students the time they would otherwise have lost because of furlough days.

Conceding defeat or looking for alternatives?

While attendees often offered suggestions for cutting money outside salaries during the meeting, Joe Bell with the Georgia Association of Educators asked a question that may well have been a challenge — GAE has lobbied heavily among state legislators to reduce the impact of budget cuts on teachers and has encouraged its members to participate in the process.
“Has this board decided to concede that the only way to recover money is through furlough days?” Bell asked.
Board member Verdell Johnson answered, “We really want to say no, but when you’re looking at two-thirds of your budget in that pot, where else do you go? We are looking at other places.”

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