Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Closing schools can kill 'heart' of a community, foes say

GENEVA — The bad economy has thrown a wrench in Chuck Wolski's automotive-repair business in rural Geneva.

Some folks who lost their jobs have moved away from the northeastern Seminole County community, taking their cars with them and cutting into Wolski's revenues.

But if the local elementary school is closed, as the School Board in Sanford is talking about, it may be the death knell for his business.

"We've got 45 or 50 teachers and other staff over at that school, and if they close it down, that is going to take 45 or 50 more of my customers," said Wolski, whose reputation for mechanical skills coupled with a convenient location draws school business his way.

If he were a big corporation such as General Electric, closing some little country school wouldn't affect him a bit, Wolski said.

"But it is going to kill us."

Geneva Elementary is first on the list of eight schools the Seminole County School Board has targeted for possible closure in a cost-cutting move designed to bridge a $20 million gap in next school year's budget. The School Board is circling in on perhaps two schools, causing Geneva and others on the list to fight for their survival.

Business income, housing prices and community spirit all are at risk, they say.

Other elementary schools that could be closed, in priority order, are Keeth, Casselberry, Hamilton, Stenstrom, Lake Orienta, Wekiva and Carillon.

Superintendent Bill Vogel on Tuesday will ask the School Board to decide by Feb. 28 whether it intends to close any schools — and if it does, to name them by March 13.

School Board Chairman Tina Calderone said the issue, which has riled thousands of parents across the county, might be put to rest Tuesday. The state Legislature seems on the road toward providing enough funding so schools would not have to be closed, she said, although that is not yet assured.

Still, Calderone and Vogel say that Seminole County "has a school system, not a system of schools." No one is guaranteed to attend a particular school, and despite certain individual characteristics, the schools ultimately are interchangeable, they say.

But those who live and work around the eight schools on the list could not disagree more.

"To take away the school would rip out the heart and soul of our community," said Andy Searles, who has a daughter in second grade at Casselberry Elementary. "New residents won't move in. New businesses won't come in. To close the school would be catastrophic for a community like Casselberry."

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