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Pickles continues fight to close schools

John Willoughby:

Greene Publishing, Inc.

It was over a year ago when Florida Senator Bill Montford visited Madison County in an effort to hear the citizens and their concerns. On Wednesday, Jan. 16, Senator Montford returned to the Madison County Courthouse and among those in attendance were Madison County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Karen Pickles.

The night before, on Tuesday, Jan. 15, Dr. Pickles and the Madison County School Board met at the Madison County High School in front of an abundant crowd. During the meeting, the recommendation to close Greenville Elementary School as part of a larger plan to strengthen the district's fund balance was discussed, however, died on the table for lack of a motion. The decision to let the agenda item die in the advertised workshop/special session meeting was met with a uproarious applause.

During the delegation meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 16, Dr. Pickles informed Sen. Montford of a fiscal study that had been completed in December of 2018. In that study, a declining enrollment of students was revealed, prompting the district administrators and School Board to look at resources to cut, in order to stabilize and increase the fund balance that has been lacking. Compared to Calhoun [County], a study showed that Madison County School District was overstaffed, "32 more employees overall than Calhoun County," said Dr. Pickles, who informed the senator that the two counties had a school system of a similar size.

"Our problem is we have very small schools; small schools that are hurting us financially, and draining us, trying to keep them afloat when I have a school (Madison County Central School) that has a seat capacity of 1,800," said Dr. Pickles, who further stated the current enrollment at MCCS is around 1,000. "I can't keep funding this. I have four teacher vacancies right now at this largest school, but I have a small school where we can move these kids to this other school and fill the teacher vacancies. I've got to do something, but I had three board members [who had] already told me before ever walking into [the Tuesday, Jan. 15 school board meeting], they would not do it, they would rather DOE come and shut this school down. They would not make that decision. So, I have board members who are not standing up and doing what they were elected to do, but fiscally, I have to look out for the financial health of this district. I also keep reminding them "Your model is right next door, look at Jefferson [County]."

Dr. Pickles continued to state, "All day today, I have been trying to identify staff and I am now below two percent. I can't make the board understand. Their idea is we can just cut staff; I am still putting a band-aid [on the issue]. I will be right back addressing this in six months time."

Senator Montford was informed by Dr. Pickles that the root cause of this issue was a decline in enrollment. She further informed the senator that she looked and found that the students were not in-fact moving between the two charter schools, but entirely moving out of the county, possibly due to the fact there is no industry in Madison County, or being homeschooled. "We have no jobs to keep people. We have no industry," said Dr. Pickles. "I have a board that does not understand and they think we should keep five schools. Our study was very detailed that we need to consider making [a lot] of changes."

Bill Rutherford, a native of Madison and current sole shareholder of CRA Architects, of Tallahassee, Fla., approached the podium to branch off of what Dr. Pickles had spoken.

"We are in the poorest area of the State of Florida. We may be the poorest county in the State of Florida, I think we have been designated as that," said Rutherford, who stated he works for multiple rural districts who share the same issue of funding with Madison County. "The declining enrollment that [Dr. Pickles spoke] of is a major factor in the school system for any rural district. It all boils down to declining enrollment because we lose people, because we don't have employment because the children go to school some other place. I don't want this school district to be taken over by someone who's from outside of Madison County."

Greene Publishing, Inc. attempted to reach out to the offices of Sen. Montford to get his thoughts on the possible closure of one or all three outlying schools in Madison County, however, as of press time, Senator Montford has yet to respond.

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