Chatham considering grade shifts in schools to save money

The superintendent of Chatham County Schools has a plan he says could save the system up to $1 million, but it means changing schools that some families have attended for generations.

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SILER CITY, N.C. — Nicholas Guariglia likes to spend his days buried in books, but lately he's creating a story of his own.

At age 12, the seventh-grade Silk Hope Elementary School student is leading the charge among his friends to keep the K-8 grade configuration at his school the same.

"It would just lose, like, a sense of family,” Guartiglia said. “Like, you get to show your little brother what you are doing. It’s kind of just a sense of family.”

“It’s being talked about a lot,” he added. “Kids are writing letters.”

"It's the community,” said his mother, Sharon Guariglia. “The teachers live in the community. You know everybody around here. It's so small that everybody knows everybody."

Part of that closeness has to do with the size of Silk Hope. Schools with grades K-8 in Chatham County are generally smaller, around 300 to 400 students, than other schools.

That's part of the problem for Chatham County Schools, which is facing a $4.5 million budget shortfall for the 2011-12 school year.

Superintendent Robert Logan says that K-8 schools cost more to run because the state provides funding based on the number of students enrolled.

To be able to give all students the same opportunities, local funds are used to hire additional teachers at the smaller schools.

“Some of the smaller schools have additional teachers that are paid for out of local money in order to create a structure so that we can offer a middle school experience,” Logan said. “We can operate the schools more efficiently if we change our grade configuration.”

Currently, there are six different configurations, including three for elementary schools – one is a K-4 school, four are K-5 schools and five are K-8 schools.

A proposal that Logan plans to submit to the Chatham County Schools Board of Education next month would reconfigure schools so that there would be nine K-5 elementary schools and four 6-8 middle schools.

About 940 of the district’s 7,800 students would be reassigned.

The change, Logan says, could save the school system anywhere from $675,000 to $1 million as it looks at a $4.5 million budget shortfall.

“We are talking about equity of services, and we are talking about savings,” he said.

Right now, the proposal is still being studied and no decisions have been made. If the school board decides to move forward with the plan, the community would be able to weigh in first at a series of public hearings.

For parents and students, like the Guartiglia, it’s a tough sell. Many families have attended the same schools for generations.

"I hope they can reconsider, because this would be like a big blow to our community,” Nicholas Guariglia said.

And that’s not the way he wants the story to end.


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