Powell says questions effect of mergers

Published 9:34 pm Tuesday, January 14, 2003

By By Paul Keane
BREWTON – Reacting to a possible plan to close and merge some smaller school districts around the state, Escambia County Schools Superintendent Melvin "Buck" Powell said more permanent financial solutions must be put into place.
Over the week State Superintendent of Schools Ed Richardson suggested that some school districts may have to be closed and merged with other smaller districts in order to relieve some pressure from expected funding shortfalls in the school budgets next year. Powell earlier this year said his district faces approximately $5 million less in funding from the state due to economic times affecting sales tax collections.
Powell even suggested that, only as a last resort, some programs could be cut and that some schools could be closed. He reiterated that it would be a last resort only.
"I do not endorse closing Huxford or McCall Schools," he said in response to Richardson's weekend comments. "My desire is not to do that, and it would only be as a final resort. But, I've told people in the district that something (similar to what Richardson proposed) was coming."
Powell said that closing some smaller school districts might save some money, but not enough to overcome the deficits faced at this time by school systems statewide.
"A lot of the things could be absorbed because you would have duplicate services that wouldn't need to be at two locations," he said. "You would have to hire some teachers, but not as many as some people may think.
"Then, you would save some money on the physical structures in the way of heating, cooling, electricity, but I wonder how much extra you would have to spend on transportation.
"I don't see how closing schools in one district, or merging some districts, would benefit Escambia County Schools with immediate money or funding."
And while saying again that he would be opposed to closing any schools in the county, the realities he and his staff are facing are rather harsh.
"I am totally against closing any of our schools," he said. "But times are tough right now, and we're right at the point where we are going to have to look at borrowing money in order to operate. "We can make it through this year and part of next year, but we're getting to the point where we're going to have to borrow money.
"I've never had to borrow money before, so I'm not sure exactly what the process would be. I do know that borrowing money to operate on is frowned upon by the state."
Powell also said that any mergers or closures of any schools or districts would have to be approved by the State Board of Education.
"Those proposals would have to go before the State Board before anything could happen," Powell said. "But the Board has been pretty favorable to Mr. Richardson over the years, so I think if it got to that point that it would be a formality."
Powell also responded to opinions espoused by many in the business community that donations and funding would come about if a plan was forwarded on how the money would be spent.
"The business community is looking for results," Powell said. "They want to see a lower dropout rate, a higher graduation rate and better test scores.
"They want a return on their investment, and I don't blame them. That is reasonable, and we are all working toward making those returns and results better."
The superintendent said one way of helping fix the funding problems would be to increase the ad valorem taxes on property in the county. He pointed out that a sales tax is tied directly to the economy and, when consumer spending decreases so does the funding to schools.
Powell also encouraged everyone to take part in the three public meetings dealing with school funding that are coming up over the next few weeks. The first such meeting was held Tuesday night in Brewton, and the next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at Flomaton High School while the final meeting will be held on Feb. 6 at Escambia County Middle School. Both meetings are scheduled to start at 6 p.m.
"It's very important that everyone attend those meetings," Powell said. "Everyone needs to be there in order to get a complete understanding of this situation. Everyone needs to understand how we got here and what we need to do to fix it. I would hope that as many people as possible turn out for the meetings."

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