Parents Seeking Answers
Academy Heights parents sought answers Thursday about why their school has to be closed During an informational meeting held Thursday by Superintendent Susan Purser.
For more than three hours, Purser stood before a roomful of parents in the West Pine Elementary School auditorium and fielded questions about her recommendation to close Academy Heights and consolidate its K-5 year-round program with Southern Pines Primary and Southern Pines Elementary School.
The recommendation is a part of a proposed budget reflecting $8.2 million in cuts that Purser submitted to the Moore County Board of Education last Monday.
Parents asked Purser why she wants to close one of the county’s top-performing schools when the amount of money saved amounts to only 6 percent of the overall cuts proposed. They repeatedly asked to see a line-item budget that outlines how the system can save $500,000 a year by retiring the school.
Purser told them she would publish the information on the school system’s website.
An e-mail sent to parents by Tim Lussier, community relations adviser, says the amount covers $410,000 in positions, $70,000 for utilities and $20,000 for other minor operational costs, such as trash collection.
Purser said that the recommendation was based strictly on monetary reasons and that closing the school has been in discussion for years as part of the system’s facilities master plan, which the Board of Education adopted in 2006.
Parents asked why there wasn’t any consideration of establishing a year-round program somewhere else in Pinehurst, such as West Pine Elementary, if it was known that the school would eventually be retired.
Purser said that in 2006, neither she nor her staff could have anticipated the significant cuts in state funding that have occurred over the last four years.
“Perhaps we would have,” Purser responded. “But this time, we’ve got to deal with the facts before us.”
The system has lost $10 million in funding from the state since the 2008-2009 school year.
‘A Big Deal’
Purser also said she did not ask the Moore County Board of Commissioners for a larger allocation of local funds because the board did not entirely fulfill the system’s request last year.
Parents believe additional local funds would easily cover the cost of keeping the school open one more year.
Some parents lamented over the fact that they have built their lives around Academy Heights to be part of the “great recipe” of parents, teachers and staff that gives their children an education that lays a solid foundation for success.
Many said they would not have the option to choose year-round school in Southern Pines because individual circumstances made the option impractical.
Julie Marrazzo told Purser that she moved to Pinehurst eight months ago so she could live closer to Academy Heights.
“I wouldn’t have moved had I known,” she said. “Now I have no options. It is a big deal.”
Several parents asked why there wasn’t enough consideration to let the Academy Heights community know sooner.
“Why couldn’t you have told us six months ago?” Leslie Berkshire-Bradley asked.
Purser replied, “Six months ago, I did not have any budget recommendations for the board.”
Michael Hawes asked Purser if there was anything she would do differently if she could handle the situation all over again.
Purser said that the way the system communicated information to both families and teachers could have been handled better.
“My plan was for the communication to be much more respectful of everyone involved,” she said.
Purser told parents that if the board adopts the recommendation, the system would communicate with families to let them know how to proceed.
She added that there would be no deliberation over teacher positions until the system knows where each Academy Heights student will attend school next year.
Students could choose to continue the year-round school program at either Southern Pines Primary or Southern Pines Elementary, beginning July 18, or they could attend their assigned resident school, which begins Aug. 25.
Most of the students attending Academy Heights live in the Pinehurst school district.
Of the 223 students in kindergarten through fourth grade affected by the recommendation, 64 live in the Pinehurst Elementary School attendance area and 84 live in the West Pine Elementary attendance area.
Purser assured parents that they will be accommodated wherever they choose to send their children, and students will receive a quality education.
Parents balked, saying that no other school in Moore County offers the same personalized learning environment.
Purser commended the parents’ passion to fight for the school before ending the meeting. She told them to gather their thoughts and prepare their own recommendations for the Board of Education.
She reminded them that the issue is merely a recommendation at this point, and the board has the final say.
‘Such a Small Amount’
After the meeting, Purser said she and her staff will take parents’ suggestions into consideration as the process moves forward, but she added that ultimately she still must come up with a plan that addresses significant funding cuts and preserves the quality of education for all students.
“It does come back to us to figure it out,” Purser said. “I’m not sure that I can make everybody happy, but I will do everything I can to meet the needs of over 12,500 students. That’s my responsibility.”
Many parents walked away from the meeting dissatisfied with Purser’s answers.
Heather Holloway said she was disappointed that Purser did not have more concrete information for parents.
“She’s treating us as if we don’t matter,” she said. “She doesn’t even have answers to give us. We expected tonight to have documentation that has the line items. We don’t have that.”
Mary Seaquist said she still couldn’t understand why the system couldn’t find the money from another source given the cut’s potential impact on the community.
“It seems like such a small amount of money for the number of people this is affecting,” she said. “So we’ll see what the board does.”
The Board of Education’s public hearings on the 2011-2012 budget and the school consolidation issue will be held at 6 p.m. Monday in the Union Pines High School auditorium.
The board is expected to approve a budget April 4 and present it to the Moore County Board of Commis-sioners April 14.
Contact Hannah Sharpe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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