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Faced with a “best case scenario” of an $8.2 million reduction in next year’s schools budget, Superintendent Dr. Susan Purser has recommended several drastic steps to reduce costs but only one has generated any real discussion: closing Academy Heights Elementary School [AHES], which is Moore County’s top ranked school.

Earlier this month, Purser laid out an extensive list of recommendations to the Board of Education in her proposed $90.2 million budget that included reworking the formula ratio to increase the number of students per teacher at every grade level, staggered open and start times for some schools to allow for consolidated bus routes, reductions to pull out programs, reductions in middle school athletics, reductions in arts, health and physical education, and elimination of ninety positions, among others.

However, her recommendation to close Academy Heights produced an immediate and sustained outcry from parents and supporters of the year round program.

During a three and a half hour public hearing on Monday, March 21, held at Union Pines High School, only one speaker tackled the general budget by asking the Board of Education to reconsider full funding of the AIG [Academic or Intellectually Gifted] program. The other fifty plus speakers who addressed the Board were united in their opposition to closing Academy Heights — at least next year.

Tear down the walls – don’t tear down the program

Constructed in 1934 on the outskirts of Pinehurst in the Taylortown community to serve African-American students prior to desegregation, the campus has expanded over the years to include an auditorium, cafeteria, media center, and gymnasium. Renamed Pinehurst Elementary in 1969, the school was revamped to serve as a self-contained academically gifted program for second and third graders. It underwent another name change, in 1996, when it was restyled as year-round academic facility.

With enrollment limited by its physical footprint and aging structure, students are often wait-listed to gain admission.

With 98.4 percent of students testing at grade level, Academy Heights is the fourth highest ranked school in North Carolina. Its closest neighbor both geographically and scholastically is Pinehurst Elementary, which is ranked eighty-ninth. Attendance to Academy Heights is offered as an option first to families in the Pinehurst Elementary and West Pine Elementary school districts, but approximately 75 of the school’s 270 or so students reside in other areas, including West End and Seven Lakes.

The secret of success

What factors contribute to the school’s success was an underlying current of many of the speakers at the recent public hearing: Is it the students and supportive parents, the teachers and staff, the program, or a combination of all these elements?

What everyone did agree upon was that it is not the building itself. Tear down the bricks and mortar, but don’t tear down the program, was the consensus.

“My son won the science fair with chicken crap and motor oil. You guys have fifty to sixty million — you should be able to figure this out,” demanded Dr. Paul Kuzma, father of Nicholas Kuzma, who won an exemplary award in the NC Science Engineering Fair in 2010 as an AHES fifth grader.

He cautioned the Board of Education to demand real numbers, echoing a concern voiced by many that the $500,000 annual savings Purser believes would come from closing the school is unrealistic — and, as yet, not been substantiated on paper.

Kuzma said, rather than closing the program, the county should use Academy Heights as a model that could be applied to the rest of the county’s schools.

A benefactor of enormous parental support and community involvement, the AHES PTA has raised substantial funding over the years to supply the school with Smart board technology, new playground equipment, furnishings, teacher stipends for classroom resources, and money for each child to make their own purchase at the annual book fair, among other projects.

“When banks are too big to fail but our number one school is not, there is something wrong,” said Elizabeth Bode, who serves as treasurer of the AHES PTA.

Several alternative options for cost cutting were offered for the Board’s consideration, including additional financial support from the community or higher school fees to attend; reducing the school week to four-days; reconstituting the program in entirety at the newly constructed West Pine Elementary campus or splitting the program between West Pine and Pinehurst Elementary; using lottery funds dedicated to capital projects to fund construction for a new facility; and stretching anticipated use of the fund balance to also cover Academy Heights

Wait a year

However, the majority who spoke clearly favored one key step in the decision process — wait a year.

“By moving the closure a year, you gain two benefits,” said Leslie Bradley. “Academy Heights has time to work with the system to know how, where, and at what cost we could move the program. And Taylortown residents have time to study and seek funding to convert the school into a community facility. During this time, the building is occupied and not abandoned. The interior and exterior are maintained, enabling an easy transition. By postponing the closure, it benefits to key Moore County constituencies.”

Earlier in the meeting, Taylortown Mayor Ulysses Barrett, Jr. said that, while the community preferred the school remain open, if it is closed, they would ask for the property to be given to the town.

Postponing the decision a year would also provide time, many argued, to study the impact of such a decision on a wide range of related issues, such as anticipated enrollment increases across the county due to Ft. Bragg BRAC; ensuring compliance with legal requirements to close a school; time to research the true costs of each alternative option; and even the impact on property values — since many stated that the opportunity to attend Academy Heights was a crucial factor in their decision to purchase a home in the Pinehurst district.

A unique opportunity

MCS’ proposed budget request from the county remains unchanged from last year at $26.2 million. The anticipated budget reductions include a $3 million cut from the state — a figure that could potentially climb as high as $9 million — and also the loss of $5.2 in federal stimulus funding.

Back in July 2010, Purser warned the Board of Education that the coming budget process would be exceptionally difficult. While funding reductions in the previous few years have had a significant impact, she said they had still been within reach of the system.

However, looking ahead to 2011-2012, she projected an adjustment like none ever experienced in Moore County.

“We have made so many reductions and trimmed here and there, making sure we remained focused on our mission and core beliefs,” said Purser. “We will be looking at how to do our business differently. We’ve got to be realistic: the money is not coming, so how we structure what we do needs to change.”

Part of that restructuring was already in place as early as 2006 when the Facilities Master Plan was developed. As recommended, a new elementary school was to be constructed to relieve overcrowding in the Pinehurst district, and Academy Heights was to be retired.

However, many at the public hearing argued about the timing and short notice before such a major decision.

“No one thought ‘retire’ was synonymous with ‘closing and disbanding’ the school,” said Carol Ray, President of the AHES PTA, noting that pouring money into a decaying facility was not feasible, but that parents and students were willing to continue at the location until an alternative site could be found.

A national & regional story

With several hundred supporters rallied to save the school in the few days between announcement of the proposed closure and the recent budget hearing, Purser’s recommendation not only attracted a near army of Academy Heights supporters, but also two television teams from Raleigh-based stations and a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

The school is admittedly the least diverse of all Moore County Schools, but it is also its number one ranked academic institution. The threat of closing a small, extremely successful program in a traditionally black community due to state budget cuts in a county that is better known for million dollar mansions and one of the nation’s premier golf courses is an irresistible storyline; especially in light of the state’s current race against time to complete road widening and costly airport upgrades to accommodate the rich and famous at the US Opens scheduled in 2014.

Time for county to step up?

Patrick Coughlin, President of the Moore County Chamber of Commerce suggested that, rather than a setback, the state budget crisis is an opportunity.

“We need a unique approach,” he said, recommending a step back from state-controlled of funding of local schools.

“We need for local counties to take a more proactive role,” Coughlin said. “We certainly have the means to do that. This is an opportunity to make a powerful statement on how Moore County values education. We, at the Chamber, believe that education is one of the pillars that a community is built upon.”

Speaking earlier in the meeting on behalf of Southern Pines Primary, which together with Southern Pines Elementary offers the only other year round academic program in the county, PTA Vice President Rollie Sampson made a similar observation — but urged the community to look beyond local funding and to take the fight for education funding to the state and national level.

“Moore County Schools budget cuts have nickeled and dimed our children’s education,” she said. “Until we as a community and country decide to put the education of our children first, this will be a never ending battle.”

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