For more than 60 years, Jones Elementary School has served as the heart of the Chicopee community, but now its fate hangs in the balance.
On Tuesday, the Hall County Schools Board of Education held a public meeting to allow community members to voice their opinions about the possible closure of the school. The board announced in advance they were only there to listen, not to answer questions.
With nearly 400 people in attendance, they got more than an earful.
“I’m speaking for myself, but in my heart I feel like I’m speaking for about 1,000 people. I’m here because I care,” said Jane Jones, a Chicopee community resident and former Jones student.
“If you close this school, you will be closing an icon.”
The system is considering closing the school in an effort to save money after the state has reduced funding and enrollment numbers that have left more than 700 seats vacant in elementary classrooms.
“Everyone (in the system) is making about 6 percent less than they did last year. I’m not complaining, but I am saying that everyone is hurting right now,” said Superintendent Will Schofield.
After considering the county’s three smallest elementary schools — including McEver and Riverbend — Jones was ultimately selected because of its close proximity to other schools with open classroom space, Schofield said.
If the school is closed, the students would be split between McEver and Chicopee Woods elementary schools, with the majority of students going to Chicopee. Staff would also follow the students to the other two schools, possibly including Jones Principal Hank Ramey. Schofield said the school board has talked informally about possibly having Ramey replace Chicopee Principal Janet Adams, who is expected to retire this year.
In addition to Jones staff, parents, teachers and students, other members of the community — including Hall County Schools bus drivers and students and staff of Gainesville State College — also attended the meeting.
“I am sympathetic to your budgetary issues, but as a teacher who has worked with these families and these precious children I think their struggles and their school is the most important issue. These children require and deserve special attention,” said Mary Sutton, who has been a Jones teacher since 1970.
“I know that our children and their families are grateful to be at this school. I know you have a list of other things that can balance that budget, you need to protect our school. Please do not close this school.”
With a population that is composed largely of non-native English speakers. The board heard from several parents who explained how their children have thrived at Jones, thanks to the smaller classes that allow teachers to give each student more individualized attention.
While the Jones school family may prefer their school over a new one, administrators say they shouldn’t assume that students won’t do well elsewhere.
“Jones is a great school, with a great staff,” Schofield said. “But so is McEver and so is Chicopee.”
Despite assurances that the facility would be used for educational purposes in the future, those in attendance still were not happy with the pending decision or the meeting, which one resident described as “just a formality.”
“This school is more than just a building. It’s home for everyone associated with it. Parents are welcome here anytime. I’m afraid that other schools won’t be as welcoming to parents as Jones is,” said Chad Cobb, Jones Parent Teacher Organization president.
“Jones is a small school because students were taken from here and moved elsewhere because of overpopulation. If the budget problems can’t be fixed on a local level, maybe they can be fixed at the state (level).”
No decision has been made yet, but, according to Schofield, if Jones is closed the school wouldn’t be sold or “turned into a warehouse.”
“The economy will turn around,” Schofield said. “And when enrollment numbers pick up, Jones will house Hall County students again.”