FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. -- Parents wept and embraced each other in disappointment, children lamented having to change schools, and school board members spoke of experiencing gut-wrenching, sleepless nights in the past several weeks.
But Monday night a majority of the Fayette County School Board voted to close four of the county's 30 public schools, schools that have been in families' lives, and anchored the surrounding communities,for generations.
"This school system is going through the most challenging times in its history," said Interim Superintendent Stan Colwell as he expressed his "agony" and "anguish" in recommending to the board members that they close the four schools. The culprits, Colwell said, are falling enrollments and dwindling property tax revenues, and a swelling, projected budget shortfall.
"Closing the four schools is just the beginning" of the painful cuts ahead, said School Board Chair Marion Key. Key said the board has already slashed $35 Million from the nearly $200 Million, 2013-2014 budget, and the budget still will not be balanced until the board finds an additional $15 Million to cut.
Closing the four schools will reduce that remaining $15 Million shortfall by more than $3 Million. And Key said that in the next few weeks the board will look at eliminating some 300 additional positions to close the rest of the $15 Million gap.
"As a result of that I have lost sleep," said the vice chair, Dr. Bob Todd. "I have knots in my stomach. I don't think there's anybody up here who has not agonized over this."
The schools that will close at the end of this school year:
Brooks Elementary School
Tyrone Elementary School
Fayetteville Intermediate School
Fayette Middle School.
"I don't like it. We voiced our opinions, but we don't really get a vote" on the school closings, said one frustrated parent, Sheri Sims. "They tell us what we have to do and we have to do it."
"It is just such a family atmosphere," said another parent, Kristi Roland, of her child's school, Tyrone Elementary. Roland spoke of the close and positive relationships among the school's students, teachers, administrators, staffers and parents. "And that's what we're so sad about. We're losing our family."
The board took a separate vote on each school closings.
Only one of the five board members, Dr. Mary Kay Bacallao, voted against all four school closings.
Another board member, Barry Marchman, joined Bacallao in voting against closing Brooks Elementary.
Marion Key, Bob Todd and Leonard Pressberg voted to close all four schools.
Some parents in the auditorium hugged each other and wept, others wiped their eyes and hung their heads as if stunned. One woman described what they were witnessing as almost like a pronouncement of death on their communities.
"I don't think their decision was correct," said a middle school student, Trinity Brown. "I would like it if they would consider another way of changing the budget."
"I wish I could stay at my old school for one more year," said another middle school student, Peyton Childers.
Peyton's mother, Sheri Sims, said his bus ride to his school now is 15 minutes, one way. She said his bus ride to the school he will attend in the fall will be 55 minutes, one way.
"I just don't know if closing so many school is the answer" to the budget crisis, she said, wondering if the closures will end up costing everyone more money than it costs now to operate them.