After months of consideration, the Escambia County Board of Education voted in a called meeting Thursday, June 29, to consolidate A.C. Moore Elementary with Rachel Patterson Elementary School and Escambia County Middle School.
After much discussion at the table Thursday, Chairman Willie J. Grissett called for a roll call vote. Board members Kevin Hoomes, Coleman Wallace, Danny Benjamin, Mike Edwards and W.J. Grissett voted yes for the consolidation. David Nolin voted no. Cindy Jackson was absent.
Before discussion began prior to the vote, Superintendent John Knott recounted the steps taken leading up to the vote.
“This is an item that we have had some discussion on for several months,” he said. “In March, the board gave me permission to start gathering data [about possible consolidation].”
He submitted the proposal to the State Department of Education and got permission to proceed.
“It’s a board decision, but the state has approved it if the board so decides,” Knott said.
He talked about surveys with stakeholders and the meeting at ACM with parents and others. In May, he held a workshop and presented his findings to the board.
At that time, Knott responded to board’s concerns and went back over them at last week’s board meeting
1. In case the board chose not to consolidate, Knott had checked with the state department to see about the possibility of having one principal for both schools, but the state department said that was not an option. Knott told the board if they voted not to consolidate, he would post the principal’s position at Rachel Patterson.
Stephanie Jackson resigned as principal of Rachel Patterson October 27, 2016. even though her resignation was not effective until June 30, 2017, Elementary Curriculum Supervisor Sandra Reid has been filling the principal’s position since last October.
2. Knott indicated building a wing for the third and fourth grades at Rachel Patterson is not feasible at this time. He said an addition and renovation would cost about $3 million. Minimum time to completion would be a year to a year and a half.
“I would not recommend building a wing at this time,” Knott said. “It would be an additional burden on our debt.”
Knott also addressed the following concerns.
1. The age of the A.C. Moore building and pending maintenance.
2. The availability of space in all schools – There is not space at Rachel Patterson for pre-k, third and fourth grades that are currently at ACM. However, there is ample room at RP for pre-k and third grades. There is ample room at the middle school for the fourth grade.
3. An analysis of enrollment over the past five years – Knott said there is a trend in rural school systems of decreasing enrollment, with more people moving to cities. Knott said there was no reason to think this system will have any hope of growth spurts over the next couple of years.
4. Safety and security for students and staff – A.C. Moore’s classrooms open to the outside with windows across one wall. Also, there is no gym at ACM and not enough space to build one.
5. Instructional needs and accountability – Knott stressed the need to focus on curriculum alignment horizontally and vertically.
6. Student transition – As it is now, pre-k students go to A.C. Moore, then to Rachel Patterson for kindergarten, first and second grades, to A.C. Moore for third and fourth grades, then to the middle school for fifth grade through eighth grades. Consolidation eliminates at least one transition.
7. Transportation – The school system has already engaged a company to analyze transportation. Consolidation should eliminate some double routes.
“My recommendation is to move forward,” Knott said. “I need an answer whether you will move forward with my recommendation or not.”
When the table was opened for discussion, Benjamin was the first to speak up. He asked about the savings if the board voted to consolidate, his concern about moving the fourth grade to the middle school, staffing, the need for a gym at ACM, and what will happen to the property if ACM is closed.
“I understand everyone’s concern,” Knott said. “We need to make the best decision for the students.”
As for the use of the property, Knott said he had tried not to plan the next steps for ACM while the board was still talking about consolidation, that discussions might pre-determine what happened. He said the City of Atmore and the Atmore Area YMCA have reached out to him about use of the property.
As far as savings, the board would save $110,000 a year in utilities alone.
Knott said in no way would the move eliminate staffing, however, over time, through attrition, the staff would be reduced.
As to the fourth grade at the middle school, Knott talked about other schools in the system with additional grades – Pollard-McCall Junior High School, kindergarten through eighth; Huxford Elementary, K-6; Flomaton Elementary, K-6; Flomaton High School, 7-12
At Flomaton High, seventh and eighth grades are on same campus with higher grades, but separated from grades nine through 12. Knott said this is very similar to the plan that will be implemented at county middle.
Nolin said his biggest concern is the fourth grade at the middle school.
“You gave examples, those are perfect storms,” he said. “Atmore is a different place, unlike any other in the county. We have great kids, but they’re not as well directed as they need to be. We would be cutting their elementary time short.”
He added that small school situations prove better than that in larger schools.
“Everywhere I go, I have people telling me we don’t need to do this,” Nolin said. “Some of them tell me they will pull their kids out [of public schools] …
“I still don’t see enough about how fourth graders and parents are going to react.”
Nolin said ECMS Principal Debbie Bolden is doing a good job, but he was there for 12 years and “I’ve got a good read on what the situation is. I would like to wait a year.”
He also noted that when discussions about consolidation started, it was not about the money, but it keeps coming back to money.
“Three million dollars is a drop in the bucket when you talk about educating our kids,” he added.”
Nolin said he was concerned about the future of students who are sent to the middle school so early, that he didn’t want them to suffer trauma five years from now because they were sent to the middle school in the fourth grade.
“If you pull kids too early, it’s like pulling fruit too early,” Nolin said.
Edwards said, “If you’re not changing, you’re not growing.”
He said that after the first year with the fourth grade at the middle school, it wouldn’t even be a matter for discussion, the school system would be upgraded and there would be more money for The Leader in Me program and money to make improvements.
Wallace said, “I’m for it. I don’t see any reason to kick the can down the road. Delaying this decision will not delay people’s anxiety.”
Hoomes said, “As a parent, I ask myself, ‘Would I be OK with this?’ … I would be OK with my children going to fourth grade at the middle school. I address these concerns for kids as I would my own.”
“I want what’s best for these kids,” Knott said. “That’s all I care about. Whichever way we go, we will address concerns and issues and go to the next step. There is no standing still. If you’re standing still, you’re stagnant. I know you can’t accept mediocrity in the performance of our kids.”
“My opinion is based on my time at the middle school and A.C. Moore,” Nolin said. “We never failed the whole time I was there.”
[Nolin was at Escambia County Middle School from 1988 to 1992, and at A.C. Moore from 1998 to 2012.]
“I’m not for blocking change, but let’s don’t rush into it,” Nolin said. “I would like to consider [sending] fourth grade to RP.”
Knott said they had been over the options numerous times.
“As superintendent, I’ve got to have a decision from the board today,” he said.
“It needed to be done in May or the first of June,” Nolin said.
Grissett stepped in, “We’re just repeating. We need to move on … We’ve been doing this for three or four months. We’ve done school meetings, workshops, surveys, feasibility studies. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the kids. Sometimes we use the kids to our own advantage. Let’s not do that.”
At that point, the chairman called for a vote. When the roll call vote was not unanimous, Grissett asked for a motion to certify the vote, to show that the board is working together as a team.
The only other agenda items were personnel recommendations and presentation of the FY 2016 Audit by State of Examiners personnel who audited Turtle Point Science Center, W.S. Neal Middle School and W.S. Neal High School and the Title I federal program. Auditor Miranda Bonner said they had no findings to report to the board.
Personnel recommendations are on page 2A of this edition of Atmore News.