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Decision On Jefferson Schools Merger Pushed To Spring

Jefferson County Elementary School

A decision on whether to consolidate Jefferson County schools has been pushed to the spring. The plan is part of a larger effort to put an end to years of budget problems for the district. And the saga could be drawing to a close.

The budget problems of Jefferson County Schools preceded new superintendent Marianne Arbulu. They go back before her predecessor, Al Cooksey. And they even pre-date Cooksey’s predecessor Bill Brumfield, who now chairs the district’s school board. Brumfield argues it’s time to close the district’s last elementary school and he says most of the board agrees with him.  

“They’ve gotten concerned with the condition of the building. The carpet is filthy. I wouldn’t even sit on it. There’s so much repairs. When I was superintendent I put hundreds of thousands into the thing just to keep it going.”

The Jefferson Elementary School is located in a neighborhood, and has survived even as the district’s other schools facilities have shut down due to declining enrollments. School Board member Sandra Saunders appears resigned to an eventuality. The school will have to be merged with the middle-high school.

“I advise everybody: If you want to see where your kids are going to school, visit the school," she says. "And then I think once they visit and do a walk through--let’s see If our school is up to par as all other elementary schools are.  I think the decision would be a better one if they go out and look for themselves.”  

“We’ve got to think whether we want our kids going to school in that environment," says board member Shirley Washington. "When we do that, we will have an open mind, a positive attitude. The condition it’s in now, we have to make changes.”

That’s three out of the five Jefferson County School Board members. But new Superintendent Marianne Arbulu isn’t sure consolidation makes financial sense.

“What are the savings, are they significant enough? Does the community want to do it and if they do, that’s a different conversation. If they don’t want the consolidation then that becomes a different conversation. If they don’t want the consolidation and the savings aren’t significant, that becomes the litmus test, right?”

Arbulu was able to balance the district’s budget without closing the school. And she says she’s hearing from parents who don’t want to see the school merged. At issue are concerns about putting younger kids with older ones. So Arbulu says she’s withholding judgment on what the decision should be. Jefferson has been placed under state financial control. And its oversight board is pushing the district to seriously consider merging the elementary school with the middle-high school. At issue is the health and safety of the students, coupled with the costs of repairs to a building that’s more than 30 years old, and aging badly. One of its wings burned down a few years ago.

The superintendent managed to convince the oversight board to hold off on the idea of consolidation until the spring. The board did grant conditional approval to the district’s capital budget and appears ready to approve its operational spending plan with some changes.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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