WEBSTER COUNTY, KY (5/9/12) – A special called meeting of the Webster County Board of Education that was supposed to take place at Slaughters Elementary Monday night was postponed on Friday until Thursday at 3 p.m. at the Webster County School District central office in Dixon.
Webster County School District Superintendent James Kemp said the decision to reschedule the meeting was made after it was determined the Webster County Board of Education wouldn’t have a quorum for a Monday night meeting. The board is already scheduled to meet in regular session on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., and Kemp said holding the special meeting specifically for the purpose of deciding whether to close Slaughters Elementary earlier in the day would keep the controversial topic from taking up time during the regular session. The school board’s last two regular meetings in which the topic was discussed didn’t adjourn before 11 p.m., which is highly unusual for the board. Typically the open session portions of the meeting end between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Many parents and others from the Slaughters community have addressed the board during those meetings to express their opposition to the administrators’ recommendation to close the school.
At the board’s meeting on April 30 at Webster County High School, the board heard a detailed report prepared by district administrators over the course of several weeks. The report concluded that because of an approximate $550,000 deficit in the school district’s budget at the start of the 2012-13 school year, the district’s best option to make up the difference is to rezone the entire district, and close Slaughters Elementary. According to the report, the school will have about 175 students next year and cost more than $1.14 million to operate. With the closing of the school and the elimination of six teacher positions, the district could save approximately $665,000, the report noted.
Every district administrator, including all of its building principals, worked collectively on the plan, and were present at the April 30 meeting when the report was presented.
The board voted down a motion to accept the recommendation, citing concerns about a second phase of the proposal to open a middle school within the existing high school, after questions were raised about how the district would pay for it. Those questions were never fully answered during the meeting, but immediately after the meeting Kemp told The J-E the costs would be minimal, since the facility already has unused classroom space.
A notice of the intention to have a special called meeting on Thursday, May 10, instead of Monday, May 7, stated that in accordance with state laws regarding special called meetings, no one in the audience will be allowed to address the board.
“The special board meeting originally proposed to be conducted at Slaughters (Elementary) on Monday, May 7, 2012, at 6:30 p.m. has been rescheduled on Thursday, May 10, 2012, at 3:00 p.m. in the board office in Dixon,” the memo stated. “The sole subject of the special meeting will be to discuss the administrative proposal regarding school closure, redistricting, and establishing a junior high school program. Since this is a special meeting, there will be no community input section in the agenda.”
As part of the proposal, district administrators offered an alternative plan that, if adopted as part of the school district’s budget, would eliminate approximately $1.18 million. Kemp has said he anticipates the state will make what’s called a “mid-year adjustment,” which is essentially a pro-ration to reduce the amount it pays. Additionally, administrators have said they are concerned about the projected enrollment counts being higher than the actual enrollment counts will be once school starts next year. The state pays each school district in Kentucky about $4,300 per student, and Webster County School District’s student population has been steadily declining over the last few years.
This potential adjustment, coupled with the more than half a million dollar deficit the district is already facing, could negatively impact programs and services the district provides if Slaughters Elementary remains open, Kemp and other administrators concluded in their report. In fact, their alternative recommendation seeks to eliminate or reduce services across the entire school district, starting with Trojan Academy, a tutoring support program.
Webster County School District Assistant Superintendent Alan Lossner said the district has already reduced the effectiveness of the program by cutting the length of time it is offered during the school year to 50 days, down from 75 days in the previous school year (2010-11).
“It would hurt to not have that one-on-one remediation time,” Lossner said, when asked how the elimination of the program would affect student achievement and test scores.
Lossner said he is especially concerned about the potential loss of the elementary level’s arts and humanities, band, and physical education programs, particularly given how it will impact primary level teachers.
“To me, that’s a huge issue,” he said. “When I thought (teachers might not) get but 30 to 45 minutes to plan and regroup, well it’s just going to create a hardship.”
The elimination of those programs from every elementary school, which would reportedly save the district $250,000, isn’t part of the finalized list of budget cuts in the proposal, but is listed as an option for the district. In fact, many of the proposed alternative cuts are just that — proposals, while others have already been removed from a tentative budget the board will be required to adopt this summer. Finalized cuts from the budget include the district’s Trojan Academy program, a contract with AmeriCorps for volunteer services, nurse contracts with the Green River Area Health Department, three vacant custodial positions, the utilization of substitutes for classified personnel shifts, staff and student drug testing, “extended days” for librarians and guidance counselors, a band staff position, 10 instructional assistant positions, and the reduction of Site Based Decision Making council allocations from $135.80 down to $100 per student. These funds are used to purchase classroom supplies for teachers at each school in the district.
The administration has already issued non-renewal notices to all staff who have worked in the district two years or less, in anticipation of the possibility the board won’t vote to close Slaughters Elementary. Kemp said some of those positions could be restored, but that most likely no more than a dozen will be reinstated with new contracts.
Even though some of the items on the alternative list probably won’t be cut this year, Kemp said if the budget woes continue on this road, they likely will be next year, and the board will have to consider closing Slaughters as well as another school in a year from now. That would most likely be Dixon, as it has been identified as the next smallest facility in need of the most work. He said he hopes the board will act to close the school now to prevent that possible scenario.
“We need to believe in ourselves and understand that no one’s going to do it for us,” Kemp said, noting that he is concerned that allowing “the sentiment of a few parents” to dictate board decisions would have far-reaching implications for the entire school district. “We’re all working for the common good. They (those who are opposed to closing Slaughters Elementary) don’t realize the consequences of their sentiments or the advantages of doing things differently. We need to be taking advantage of what we have.”
Kemp has repeatedly said that by closing Slaughters Elementary and opening a middle school, the district will be able to meet new state testing requirements for middle-school age students who will soon be required to test in higher math concepts that Kemp said the current K-8 model in the Webster County School District doesn’t allow teachers time to incorporate into their curriculum, particularly because each school duplicates the same core subject material rather than have one department for each subject where every teacher in that department can provide a specialized course in the subject. In science, for example, if the school district has a middle school, it could offer chemistry, geology, and biology instead of just general science.
Kemp said he understands the changes are difficult to accept, but that if the district is going to continue to succeed at educating kids, it will have to make these changes.
“These are not frivolous changes somebody dreamed up,” Kemp said. “We are being pulled out of comfort zone. The assessment instrument is changing. It makes it harder for us to perform, and there could be long-term consequences (if the district doesn’t start now to plan on how to accommodate the changes).”
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