Jasper County School District considers school consolidation plans

The Jasper County's schools superintendent wants to consolidate her district's middle and high schools next school year -- just five years after they were split -- to save expenses and expand course offerings.

But some members of the district's Board of Trustees say they don't know enough about the plan -- and a meeting Tuesday was ended before details could be explained.

The board was slated to hear a proposal to merge Hardeeville and Ridgeland middle schools and Hardeeville and Ridgeland high schools, but that meeting ended abruptly when board member Randy Horton tried to complain the district is denying him information about hiring practices and other concerns he has raised.

Attempts Wednesday to reach Horton and board Chairwoman Kathleen Snooks for comment were unsuccessful.

Board member Barbara Clark said Horton asked to speak during the meeting's designated public comment time after several unsuccessful attempts to add discussion of district hiring practices and spending to the board's agenda at previous meetings.When Horton was not called upon in the public comment period, he stood to address the board. Snooks hit her gavel several times, Clark said, then called for a motion to end the meeting. The motion was made and was seconded but not voted on, Clark said.

Some board members then left. Horton stayed on, and voiced his concerns to the meeting's attendees. But the board didn't see a presentation consultants had compared detailing the proposal to consolidate schools.

Clark and board member Pamela Williams said their constituents oppose consolidation. Clark represents the Levy area; Williams represents Hardeeville.

Superintendent Vashti Washington said Jasper County High School and Jasper County Middle School should never have been broken apart. However, she said the only way to get Hardeeville voters to agree to pass a bond referendum to pay for the new buildings the district needed was to ignore consultants' recommendations and put a new high school in the community.

Currently, 525 students attend Ridgeland High and 418 attend Ridgeland Middle. Hardeeville High has 277 students. Hardeeville Middle has 251.

Teachers, administrators and staff are not efficiently distributed across two student bodies, and course offerings are limited as a result, Washington argues.

The district offers only one Advanced Placement course, at Ridgeland High. Only six honors courses are offered at Ridgeland High, and only four are offered at Hardeeville High.

There will be 13 teaching vacancies at Hardeeville High next year, Washington said. Rather than fill those vacancies, Washington said, the $1 million that would be spent on those salaries could be spent on better programs for students.

Williams and Clark said they worried that students would spend too much time on buses -- more than an hour and a half by their estimates -- if the schools were consolidated, a claim Washington disputes. The board members also say public perception of the superintendent's proposal is that it is a done deal that received no public input.

Washington said several focus group meetings were held last winter. Williams and Clark said they were not a part of those meetings, and that any board conversation about the topic has been sporadic. They haven't received information about how the proposal would affect the district's budget or cut positions, they said. They also said they haven't been given plans on what courses could be offered at the consolidated schools or the proposed location of each school.

Attempts to reach board vice-chairwoman Berty Riley and board members Priscilla Fraser, Alina Hamilton-Clark and Michael Hubbard were unsuccessful. Board member Cathy Gardney declined comment.

Another meeting to discuss the issue and review the consultants' report is scheduled for June 6.