It’s been a rocky and tense few weeks for a handful of Seven Lakes families who are waiting to hear what fate will befall their beloved school.
Heard first through an automated telephone message, the announcement from Dr. Susan Purser, Superintendent of Moore County Schools [MCS], that she was recommending the closure of Academy Heights Elementary School [AHES] was a shock.
Purser targeted AHES because it is an old facility on a tiny piece of land — and because its student population could be accommodated at other county schools, including the year round program also offered at Southern Pines Primary and Elementary.
“I’m all for budget cuts especially if the money isn’t there,” said Westsider Phil Woodard, a AHES parent. “But closing what I consider to be a great school, as opposed to finding another alternative means or location, is wrong. Wait a year, because once you close it you can’t take it back. Let’s make sure you can’t pull money from somewhere else before you slam the door.”
With two young children enrolled at the school, Woodard’s thoughts echoed what many other Academy Heights parents recommended during a three and one half hour public hearing before the Board on the proposed budget.
Many challenged Purser’s estimate that closing the school would save $500,000 per year and argued that it’s not the building, but the program that is worth saving.
Wait at least a year, they said, and allow time for an appropriate review of costs and alternative locations.
A senior vice president in banking, Woodard offered a business analogy.
“Would you close your most successful branch? So why, if your objective is to educate kids, would you close the most successful school?”
Academy Heights is, in fact, not only the number one performing school in Moore County, but it also ranks in the top five for all schools in North Carolina.
Northsider Amanda Keller’s son has been enrolled in three county schools and, at AHES, he is finally flourishing, she said, noting the small size, dedicated teachers, and family atmosphere as vital components to his success.
“Everybody agrees the building is not the best, but it’s never been an issue,” Keller told The Times. “It is what it is, bricks and mortar.”
“By waiting a year, hopefully we would know the bigger impact of BRAC [Ft. Bragg’s Base Realignment and Closure] and if there are additional monies coming in,” she added. “Certainly the Chamber of Commerce has stated they are willing to assist if they can. I think there would be more options because they would have time to meet and plan.”
Purser’s suggested alternative for AHES students — that they enroll in the Southern Pines Year-round program, poses a special hurdle for the Seven Lakes families interviewed by The Times — too long a commute to school.
Most AHES students live in the Pinehurst area.
“I don’t want to give up on a year round program,” explained Westsider Suzanne Shelton, “but Southern Pines? No. It’s just too far to drive.”
With two young children enrolled at the award-winning school, she too said she was shocked at Purser’s proposal.
“I feel if there were more year round programs offered then more families could take advantage of it,” she said, noting that the schedule itself is one of the reasons AHES children are scoring higher. “It seems to me that if Dr. Purser did put priority value on year round programs, then she would make it work.”
Shelton said the haste with which the decision to close Academy Heights is being made simply does not feel right. She noted that Pinehurst Elementary is an old school, as is West End Elementary — so why, she wondered, is there so much emphasis on the age of Academy Heights?
“There are a lot of great ideas floating around to allow the program to stay together,” Shelton said. “There are so many parents willing to fight to keep this program — students and even former students are also fighting for the program.”
“They can talk budget all day long, but there are options other than closing it down,” she concluded.
The Board of Education has postponed its next meeting, originally scheduled for Monday, April 4, until Monday, April 11 to allow additional time to review the proposed budget and to consider alternatives for Academy Heights.