ROGERSVILLE – Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson took a lot of heat from parents Thursday over a school board decision last week to bus Keplar Elementary’s fourth and fifth grades to Hawkins Elementary when classes begin on Aug. 5.
It probably didn’t help him much that his first meeting with parents since that July 11 vote was in Keplar’s stuffy gymnasium in the late afternoon heat with no air conditioning.
It was already a powder keg of emotion that exploded a few times during the 90 minutes of discussion.
A video which contains about an hour of that discussion, including a several temper flare-ups, can be seen in the online version of this article at www.timesnews.net
Keplar parents aren’t happy
Hixson's took full responsibility Thursday for the lack of public notice that led up to a school board decision last week to move Keplar Elementary’s 38 fourth and fifth grade students to Hawkins Elementary.
The parents who attended Thursday’s meeting at Keplar don't want to send their children to another school, and see this as a move toward an inevitable school closure at Keplar.
One of Hixson's main messages to parents Thursday evening was, although the BOE voted 5-1 to move Keplar's fourth and fifth grades to Hawkins Elementary, that decision is reversible if the board finds another viable money saving solution.
As of Thursday that solution hadn’t revealed itself, but Hixson said if they find an alternative the Board of Education will be called into special called session to consider that option before the school year begins.
In the meantime, however, parents of Keplar’s fourth and fifth graders should be preparing for them to attend Hawkins Elementary this year. Parents can opt to send their child to another county elementary school, but they would have to provide their own transportation.
How we got to this point
One of Keplar's teachers resigned and another filled another vacancy in the district. Hixson told parents that by not replacing those two teaching positions at Keplar the district is saving approximately $120,000.
The BOE vote was a reaction to the county commission's July 1 Budget Committee decision to allocate 2 cents of property tax revenue from the school system's general fund, and place it in the county general fund for the purpose of addressing some county facility improvements.
That move, assuming it is approved in the final 2019-20 budget, would cost the county school system $175,000 annually.
Adding to Keplar’s misfortune is the fact that it’s enrollment has been under 100 for about a year and a half, which means it is not fully funded under the state’s BEP funding formula. The county has to make up those funds that aren’t coming in from the state.
“I take the blame”
The BOE has been discussing the potential closure of its two smallest schools, Keplar and McPheeters Bend, for the past five years due to declining enrollment and the cost of maintaining their aging facilities.
What’s saved those schools has been strong community support at past BOE meetings in favor of keeping those schools open.
That’s why there’s a perception in the community that the public was intentionally not informed the BOE would consider relocating Keplar’s fourth and fifth graders during its July 11 meeting.
Hixson said there was no warning because the proposal wasn’t even conceived until Thursday.
“I take the blame for any perception that we were trying to hide anything at last Thursday's board meeting,” Hixson told parents. “... That is completely on me, and you can ask the board, they did not know about that before. I'm still learning the process, and I appreciate your patience. You could be a lot more upset and a lot more agitated, and I appreciate your patience and your willingness to ask questions.”
“It's completely wrong”
Keplar parent Justin Mowell said one reason he believes enrollment at Keplar is down is due to the threats of a school closure.
“I can tell you of several families who are putting in to go out of zone simply because the Board of Education has bullied this school for a decade,” Mowell said. “They have bullied and talked about closing this school for years and they do not want to send their kids here because they're scared to death the Board of Education will close this school down.”
Mowell added, “And then they'll have to do exactly what I'm having to do, which is explain to their fourth grader why he can't go to his school three weeks from now. He's going to have to go to a new school. That timeline itself — we're having this discussion three weeks before school starts. That is not just wrong, it's immoral to do that to these kids. It's completely wrong.”
Keplar parent Donna Hurley has two children starting at Keplar this year who she had previously enrolled out of zone, and she's had other children who attended Keplar.
“I love this school,” Hurley said. “This is a wonderful school. I like the community feel to it. I like the fact that they take time with the kids, they search out grants, and if they don't have it they will get it.”
Hurley added, “We talked about whether Keplar would make it or not, and we made the decision to bring our kids back here because — not taking anything away from the other school — but this is our community. We want our kids to have that feel, and we want them to be able to go through the grades that are here all the way through fifth grade … because of the fact that the numbers in the class are smaller and that gives the teacher more time for each child.”
Concerns about busing
One woman state her grandson is already on a school bus an hour and 15 minutes to and from Keplar every day already. The trip to Hawkins Elementary just means more time on a school bus every day.
Keplar parent Marty Mowell noted the Keplar kids are spread out over a large territory and live all the way to the Sullivan County line.
Marty Mowell added, “There's not one on the school board, if they had to put a grandchild or child on that bus on the other end of the county on Beech Creek, would want their child on that bus to go all the way to Rogersville.”
“We're screwed next year”
Patti Crawford has been one of Keplar's strongest supporters for years,and she wasn't pulling her punches Thursday with Hixson.
“If fourth and fifth grade is shipped to Rogersville, we're screwed next year,” Crawford said. “This right there is just the nail in their coffin. When you take the fourth and fifth grade out of here, next year these younguns who are just starting school are gonna be going up there (to Hawkins Elementary).”