WEBSTER COUNTY, KY – Literally hundreds of administrators’ collective hours of study, planning, and deliberating over how to not only plug a projected half a million dollar deficit but also to address long-term solvency issues in the Webster County School District ended with a presentation to the Webster County Board of Education and the members’ collective criticism that the presentation didn’t fully explain how to implement phase two of the project, particularly how the district will pay for the expense of opening a middle school in Dixon.
The discussion took place at the Webster County Board of Education meeting in the Webster County High School library in Dixon. About 150 parents, teachers, students, and other concerned citizens attended. Most of those in attendance were from Slaughters.
School board members individually thanked the administrative committee, which included district administrators as well as all of the elementary buildings’ principals, for their hard work on the proposal, but said they wanted more information about how the district would transition into the second phase of the project.
Phase one of the proposal, which included detailed information and charts regarding how the district would reorganize in order to meet the anticipated deficit in the 12-13 school year, was presented to the school board near the start of the meeting. Webster County School District Instructional Supervisor and former Slaughters Elementary principal Kim Saalwaechter conducted the presentation. Copies of the report were also distributed among the audience and to the media.
Throughout the presentation, Saalwaechter reiterated that the plan was to do what is best for the district and not any particular community. “We are talking about a total district-wide restructuring plan,” Saalwaechter said. “We are not talking about one community. We are talking about the district as a whole. We are not taking it lightly.”
Saalwaechter fought back tears during the presentation as she explained that the options for the district at this point are to cut programs, personnel, and services, or to close Slaughters Elementary at the end of the school year this month and eliminate as many as six teacher positions, most of which would be the result of retirements. “This is one of the most difficult decisions and discussions we’ve had at Webster County,” Saalwaechter said, choking up slightly. “Above emotion, we owe it to students (to provide quality education). This is a district restructuring proposal. This administrations stands united in one goal and one purpose: to expand educational opportunities.”
The first part of the plan calls for a redistricting of attendance zones for students, something the Webster County Board of Education has been contemplating for well over two years. Students who attend Slaughters Elementary would be divided among Sebree Elementary and Dixon Elementary, with most of those attending in Dixon. Sebree Elementary is very near capacity, but Sebree Elementary Principal Aaron Collins said the school could handle the additional students by rearranging space in the building that isn’t currently being used “efficiently.”
Saalwaechter said if the district keeps Slaughters Elementary open, the district will need 64 teachers, but can eliminate six positions at a savings of approximately $300,000. The recommendation presented states the district would spend approximately $1.14 million just at Slaughters Elementary, but will save about $280,000 if it closes that school and redistricts the rest of the county. That amount is in addition to the savings realized by the elimination of the teacher positions. Along with the elimination of a more than $65,000 guidance counselor position, the district would save a total of approximately $648,000.
Saalwaechter said the entire administration recognized that Slaughters Elementary is a strong school with high test scores and solid community support. “No one in this room will disagree with those facts,” she said. “But we are at a time in Webster County when we are forced to do things differently.”
Saalwaechter also pointed out the proposal is not unique to Webster County. “We have seen school closures and drastic staff cuts (across the state),” she said. “We are not alone in this situation.”
Next, Saalwaechter discussed the alternative plan on how to trim the deficit out of the budget if the board doesn’t approve the recommendation to close Slaughters Elementary and redistrict the other school attendance zones. These included the elimination of the district’s tutorial Trojan Academy program, nursing contracts, support staff positions, and arts and humanities, physical education, and band at all of the elementary schools. Some on the list have already been removed from the 2013-2014 budget, administrators noted during the meeting. (See related story for the full list of proposed cuts.)
Following the presentation, Saalwaechter received light applause from the audience, and Webster County Board of Education Chairman James Nance asked Webster County School District Assistant Superintendent Riley Ramsey to explain the redistricting guidelines, since he was the person who worked on that aspect of the proposal the most.
Ramsey said he and other school district staff members looked at a number of factors before making their recommendation, such as how long children would be on the school bus, fuel costs and other expenses, and bus routes. He said with this proposal, the district “will not have to buy new buses or hire new drivers,” and that the administration would work with parents to make changes, where needed, to work with parents.
“We are trying not to impose an additional burden (on parents and students,” he said. “This could be adjusted slightly.”
Next to speak was Webster County Board of Education member E Carolyn Tucker. She asked several questions of Webster County School District Superintendent James Kemp, mostly to reiterate previous discussions the board has had on the subject — with some questions referring back to meetings that took place more than two years ago.
“Do you believe in this plan?” Tucker asked Kemp during her series of questions.
“Yes,” he answered. “This is the best plan we could find.”
It was also pointed out that Slaughters Elementary’s age and condition mean the state won’t fund renovation or future construction work there, and that eventually it will have to be closed.
“Are we limiting achievement opportunities?” Tucker asked.
“Increasingly, that is becoming the case,” Kemp answered.
“Would a delay cost anything in money,” Tucker asked next as she continued.
“$600,000, in opportunities,” Kemp said. “One year’s opportunity won’t be regained.”
Tucker then said she was very concerned about the prospect of losing elementary arts and humanities programs, an area she said has been demonstrated to be directly linked with higher test scores. She also expressed concern about the impact the loss of support programs such as P.E. would have on teachers if the board didn’t accept the recommendation.
“Without these classes and programs, teachers will have no breaks and no planning periods during the day,” Tucker said. “Teachers at the elementary school are going to be taking the brunt (of these cuts).
“This has been the hardest decision I’ve had to try to make,” she said in conclusion. “It isn’t about what’s happening to Slaughters. It’s about what’s happening to our county. We’ve got to do something for our kids — not just one school, all our schools.”
Webster County Board of Education member Steve Henry spoke next. He asked Kemp about the plans for the second phase of the proposal, which would be to open a middle school program for seventh and eighth grade students in an older, unused wing of Webster County High School.
“Are we going to be able to find or set a projected cost?” Henry asked.
Kemp said in response that the district has “some bonding potential,” which was later stated to be roughly a million dollars. He said some of the rooms could be renovated, and that with the renovation of the old library, the school could provide as many as 17 classrooms for middle school students.
Later in the meeting, Nance called on Scott Noles, an independent architect who worked as a consultant with a volunteer Local Planning Committee last year to study all of the district’s buildings. Noles presented estimates regarding the cost of building a new middle school, and stated costs in a range of $3 million to $9 million, based on the previous LPC report. Tucker immediately followed up on Noles’ comments — which were made specifically at Nance’s request — by asking him to identify the costs of other projects on the list, such as renovation needs at Clay and Providence elementary schools. Those were in the millions of dollars as well.
Other questions asked of administrators included concerns about housing and feeding students at Sebree Elementary and at the high school, should the middle school becomes a reality. Building principals at the meeting and Food Services Director Shane Bosaw said those needs were being addressed, and plans were in place to make whatever changes are needed to accommodate students at each of the schools.
Webster County Board of Education member Jeff Pettit then asked if the district can actually afford to run a middle school facility.
“We don’t know how much money or bonding capacity we have,” Pettit said. “It’s presumptuous to accept phase two without that info.”
Kemp responded, saying phase two “would have no bearing on phase one,” but board members rejected that answer, especially after parents from Slaughters Elementary expressed concern during the public comment portion of the discussion that the district had no back-up plan about where to house Slaughters students if it is unable to implement a middle school in the 13-14 school year.
Immediately following Pettit’s questions regarding the district’s bonding potential, Webster County Board of Education member Tim McCormick asked Kemp about the list of proposed cuts, and noted that although the district is expected to be short about $550,000, the cuts total closer to the $1.14 million that it will cost to operate Slaughters Elementary.
“We could still keep arts and humanities,” McCormick said. “If we waited until 13-14 to close Slaughters, only the portion of that (reduction list) that comes up to $550,000 would have to be cut. This is double the amount of savings we have to have.”
The audience clapped loudly at McCormick’s comment, but Kemp and other board members quickly pointed out that the total cuts are proposed in the likelihood that the state will make additional mid-year reductions in revenue. Kemp said it’s also important to remember that the cuts affect every school in the district and not just Slaughters Elementary.
“It’s not just what you can see, it’s what could happen,” Kemp said. “When you hear the governor get up and say he is so pleased he has been able to protect education funding for another year, that’s not quite the case,” Kemp said. “The total amount of SEEK (money the state pays schools for each child in its population) remains the same, but cost of living went up, and we have to pay for social security and other things that ... change by state or federal edict or mandate.”
At the same time, he said, the district’s student population has been on a steady decline over the last decade. “We lose population every year,” he said. “It’s not nice to look at money but it’s the aspect that the board has to,” he said. “Every time a student leaves, money leaves.”
Kemp said the district has lost at least 300 and as many as 500 students over 10 years, to the tune of more than $1 million. At a previous meeting, he said the district has fewer students now than it did before the merger with the former Providence Independent School District.
Pettit agreed that simply balancing the budget against the deficit is a bad idea. “This is an ‘ala carte’ menu item,” he said of the alternative list of proposed cuts. “If we cut $550,000, we’ll be right back here.”
Kemp said that was a correct statement. “Yes, if we do not make some kind of a determination about how we’re going to organize ourselves, there could be a lot more added to the... list.”
As the meeting continued, Tucker asked Kemp about possible administration cuts. “We already cut four or five positions out of administration,” Kemp said. “The ones that are left are essential services we have to provide or they are shut down.”
Henry spoke next. “The state doesn’t allow us the pleasure of emotions, social graces, or comfort zones,” he said. “But they do give us enough rope to hang ourselves.”
The issue of what happens if the board doesn’t act again came up, and Kemp stressed the points he made earlier. “If the board doesn’t make a decision, we will be dealing with a different set of parents on the same issue next year,” he said.
Nance echoed the sentiment, saying he believed the board would be making a similar decision about Dixon Elementary next year because of the financial losses the district continues to suffer.
The public was invited to address the board during the discussion of the proposal, and almost everyone who spoke said they were opposed to the closing of Slaughters Elementary this year, especially given that the administration hadn’t presented details about the implementation of a middle school. At no point did the board, Kemp, or anyone in the audience directly ask any of the 14 administrators who worked on the committee and were present at the meeting whether such details had been developed and if so, what those plans are. The only statement ever made in answer to that issue during the meeting came from Kemp, who said the board was aware of the tentative proposal and what steps could be taken to secure funding. After the meeting, Kemp said the cost wouldn’t be anywhere close to the projected $9 million as stated by the architect, and noted that the plan the administration has will use existing classrooms in the high school with little to no modifications. When asked about details regarding the second phase, Kemp said the administrative team was more concerned about fleshing out the first phase in order to have that ready in time for a board recommendation at the Monday night meeting.
First to speak from the public was Cathy Blanford, who told the board she has three children attending Slaughters Elementary. She asked Sebree Elementary Principal Aaron Collins what would happen to the school’s SDI program for special needs students. Collins said those programs would remain in place within the building, and that mobile units wouldn’t be needed. He said building staff had been working on how to use the existing space more efficiently.
Kim Dunville also addressed the board. She asked about budget cuts, and how the budget is developed.
Kemp told her he starts working on the budget in January and then presents it for board approval in May. “We’ve come to the end of all of the lifelines that were extended to us,” Kemp said. “Now we have to find our own lifelines.”
Dusty Fambrough cried as she addressed the board. “Putting these children into ‘quick-fix’ schools will hinder their achievement,” she said.
Former Webster County Board of Education member Lisa Preston, who represented taxpayers in the Slaughters Elementary area, also addressed the board. While she said she’s not against a middle school, she expressed concern about the pace of the proposal and asked the board to hold off doing anything for one year.
“Closing Slaughters Elementary this year is not going to help you get that middle school,” she said. “You’ve got to think ahead. Where is that money coming from?”
“I know what you’re saying,” Kemp told her. “The board is aware of that.”
Gayla Sorrells accused the board of not caring about the students. “All I’ve heard is budget, money, budget, money,” she said angrily. “Where’s our kids at? They’re certainly not first!”
Nance stopped her from speaking further as Henry picked up the sound system’s second microphone to address her where the entire room could hear. “I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t for kids,” Henry said. “You’re not the most popular person when you sit on this board. If we don’t do something, they’re going to suffer regardless.”
“Have you considered leaving the kids alone until the middle school is built?” Sorrells then asked him.
“Yes ma’am,” Henry said as he picked up the sheet listing all the alternative cuts, “but this piece of paper... all those are cut out. Does everybody understand what we’re saying? I wish there was an easier answer.”
Dunville again spoke up. “A year from now, you have no place for our kids,” she said, referring to the fact that Sebree Elementary is almost at full occupancy. Board members addressed that issue for more than half an hour before agreeing that it is something that needs to be resolved before moving ahead with a decision.
“Before I vote on this, I’m going to have to have those answers,” Henry said in agreement.
None on the administrative team offered a definitive answer to that question.
Following the discussion, the board debated what to do next for a few minutes, sometimes whispering too low for the public to hear what was being said. Ultimately, members agreed to hold a special called meeting at Slaughters Elementary, but had difficulty finding a date where all of the members could attend. Henry said he had a family obligation he couldn’t cancel on Thursday, May 4, which was the date first suggested for the meeting.
Nance said he didn’t want to conduct the meeting without Henry, and asked the other members if they could meet on Monday, May 7, to take a final vote. Tucker said she wouldn’t be able to attend if it is held Monday night, and called for a motion to conduct a vote right then. McCormick seconded her motion, and then Nance asked her to amend her motion to state a decision. She amended it to call for a vote in support of the administrative committee’s recommendation to close Slaughters Elementary and begin development of the multi-phase plan. McCormick again seconded.
Others on the board said voting immediately in favor of the plan wasn’t a good idea.
“Carolyn, if we pass this and close Slaughters (Elementary), and then we’re not able to bring them to the high school, what are we going to do with them (the students from Slaughters who would be in the middle school age group)? Until I know what those costs are, I just can’t vote... to do that. I’m hoping to find out between now and Monday what those costs are, and then I’ll be ready to vote.”
Tucker said she didn’t understand the concern about phase two, and voted in favor of the motion. The other four board members voted against the motion, and it was defeated. A motion was then made to have a special called meeting on Monday, May 7, at 6:30 p.m. at Slaughters Elementary, to continue the discussion and consider a decision.
That vote passed 4-1, with Tucker voting in opposition.
The board then took what Nance referred to as a “short break,” at approximately 10:20 p.m. Those in the audience took that time to leave the meeting, and it resumed just before 10:35.
Members quickly hustled through a list of business items, including the elimination of a roughly $6,800 contract for membership with the Western Kentucky Educational Cooperative, renewal of its contract with attorney Amelia Zachary, and a series of “consent agenda” items. The consent agenda included leave requests, annual bid requests, various monthly reports, and budget amendments. The board then reviewed personnel changes, including the retirement of Dianna Duncan, Dixon Elementary teacher; the employment of Marcy Mahurin, substitute instructional assistant; and the resignation of WCHS assistant football/power lifting Coach Jason Morris.
Before adjourning, Zachary told the board she filed a notice of appeal on Monday in Webster County Circuit Court. She said the appeal deals directly with the motion to dismiss the school board’s case against Webster County Clerk Valerie Newell over a petition committee’s challenge to a nickel tax for construction. Webster County Circuit Court Judge Rene´ Williams granted Newell’s motion to dismiss on the grounds that the school board violated the Open Meetings Laws when it didn’t conduct a vote in open session to file the lawsuit. Zachary and the board contend that such a vote isn’t required.
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