As all seven Anderson School District One board members raised their hands to approve the closing Pelzer Elementary at the end of the school year, several women cried out in dismay and some in the audience promised the board they would vote them out of office next time.
Anderson One trustee Nancy Upton made the motion to close the school after Fowler’s request, and Wendy Tucker seconded the motion.
“It was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make since being on the school board,” said Upton, who has been on the Anderson One board since 1990.
She said she spent several “sleepless nights” leading up to the board meeting, but ultimately she said the board needed to do what was best for the district as a whole.
Of Anderson One’s approximately 9,300 students, about 150 attend Pelzer Elementary.
The cost to run Pelzer Elementary is about $9,700 per pupil, well above the district average of $6,751 per pupil, according to district and state figures. The savings in closing the school would be about $560,000 — a large sum of money, but only a percentage of the district’s projected deficit as the economy slows down.
“This wasn’t easy,” said trustee Joe Pack after the meeting. Pack initially began his tenure on the board 40 years ago, when he helped lead an effort to keep Pelzer and Cedar Grove Elementary schools from closing.
But this time, he couldn’t save the school.
“It all boiled down to the money part,” he said. “You have to pay the teachers.”
The board also voted to slice administrative costs, and has been figuring out ways to save millions by cutting utilities and staff development and by avoiding to replace some administrators. (See related story.)
Anderson One spokeswoman Jane Harrison said the district has been able to absorb costs through attrition, but it may not be able to renew some teacher’s contracts if not enough resign by the end of the year.
Before the board voted to close the school, several residents had a chance to plead their case. Several parents brought their children, who attend Pelzer Elementary. Some of the students and parents held signs asking that the board not close the school.
“Please don’t close my school,” “Give our children a future,” “Preserve History — Save Pelzer Elementary,” “Listen to our prayers. Save Pelzer Elementary” — these were some of the signs that parents and students brought to the board meeting.
“The situation regarding the proposed closing at Pelzer Elementary could and should have been handled in a different way,” said Pelzer resident Heather Holcombe.
Holcombe said the district should have contacted the town earlier and hosted meetings with the citizens, she said.
“The district office should have contacted the town and should have had a Q and A meeting with parents and community members,” Holcombe said.
Holcombe also cited several areas she believes the district could cut costs and save closing Pelzer Elementary.
Holcombe said that eliminating a 3K program at Palmetto Elementary School could save the district $344,000. Meanwhile, the town of Pelzer would be willing to consider absorbing the utilities cost for the school, she said.
“To sum it up, there are alternatives to saving money without closing Pelzer Elementary,” she said.
Pelzer resident Mark Knight suggested that the five districts in Anderson One cut costs by eliminating administrative positions.
“It seems like we always start from the bottom,” Knight said, adding that he believes the school districts in Anderson County are “top-heavy.”
“To me, from what I think about this, consolidating Anderson County into one district would save in the neighborhood of $500,000,” Knight said.
Stephen Boudreau suggested the district cut the positions of several assistant principals and nurses instead of closing Pelzer Elementary.
“If we eliminated all of the elementary school assistant principals, we would save $413,478,” he said.
“We didn’t have an assistant principal when I grew up,” Boudreau said.
He also asked that the board table the decision for 90 days.
Friends of Pelzer co-director Andrea Damitio also asked that the board table the decision and form a task force to figure out how to keep the school from closing.
Harry Marchant, also a co-director of the Friends of Pelzer, said, “You’re talking about destroying a community.”
Marchant said the Friends of Pelzer has been working to restore the town of Pelzer, entice investors and bring growth to it.
“That’s not a lot of money in comparison to destroying a community,” Marchant said. “I really hope that you will take your time and not make a decision irrationally today.”
Fowler said he understood the citizens’ attachment to the school and to the community, especially since he has been a principal at the school and attends church in Pelzer.
“This is one of the more difficult decisions, probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to deal with,” Fowler said. “During these economic times, there are going to be many, many tough decisions that this board is going to make. And there will be many, many recommendations.”
Fowler said he expects that the recession will continue for longer than a year, so the board needs to be ready to make more difficult decisions.
“The real bottom line is that we will have to look at ways to cut our budget and ensure that we’re able to keep as many employees working with our children next year as we possibly can,” he said. “The recession that we’re in is going to be very deep. … The recession is going to be with us for more than a year. This is not a one-year problem. I wish it was.”
Fowler said the children’s education will not suffer by moving to other schools, whether they attend Palmetto Elementary, West Pelzer Elementary or Cedar Grove Elementary.
“Will those needs be met at the other schools? And the answer is yes,” Fowler said, although several in the audience yelled out in disagreement.