'Everything is on the table': Hawkins teachers, schools could be cut based on new study

Jeff Bobo • Mar 8, 2020 at 10:30 AM

ROGERSVILLE — The first draft of an economic study that could determine the fate of Hawkins County’s two smallest schools is now in the hands of the Board of Education, which will discuss it publicly for the first time on March 31.

The study addresses cost-cutting measures such as reducing the number of teacher salaries in the budget by not rehiring certain positions that become vacant through routine attrition.

When asked if the study also suggests the closing of Keplar and McPheeters Bend elementary schools, Director of Schools Matt Hixson said, “Everything is on the table.”

The study was conducted over the past several months by Dr. Keith Brewer, who is a former deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education. He also previously served as director of schools in Manchester.

The BOE agreed in August to move forward with the Brewer study to provide the county objective information from an outside source about potential cost savings on personnel and facilities.

Board Chairman Chris Christian told the Times News Friday that Brewer is working on the final draft, which could be completed as soon as next week.

BOE members will use the rest of March to review the report and email individual questions to Brewer before holding a special called meeting on Tuesday, March 31, to discuss the document for the first time as a group.

Ample time for the public to react

The regular monthly BOE meeting is later that week on Thursday, April 2, and Christian said the BOE might be ready to act on the information contained in Brewer’s report as soon as that meeting.

Christian noted, however, that he hasn’t had time to look over the first draft, and he doesn’t know what Brewer says about some of the more controversial issues facing the BOE, such as the future of the system’s two smallest and most rural schools: Keplar Elementary and McPheeters Bend Elementary.

Ample time will be given for the public to react to any proposed changes that arise from Brewer’s report before a BOE decision is made, Christian added.

The Brewer study was approved in August shortly after the BOE reversed its decision in July to move Keplar Elementary School’s fourth and fifth grade classes to Hawkins Elementary in Rogersville.

The rationale for transferring those students was to avoid having to replace those two teaching positions which became vacant at Keplar after the 2018-19 school year. Merging those classes into Hawkins Elementary would have saved approximately $120,000 annually.

However, there was a huge backlash by the Keplar community, which saw the proposed move as the first step toward the eventual closure of the school.

“Equitably spending our BEP and local funds”

Keplar is located about seven miles from Hawkins Elementary at the end of Burem Road, but it serves a large rural community in south central Hawkins County that extends all the way to the Sullivan county line.

Since 2015, the BOE on multiple occasions has discussed the possibility of closing McPheeters Bend (located near Church Hill) and Keplar — two of the county’s oldest school buildings.

Both have also seen enrollment dip below 100, and schools with fewer than 100 students lose state funding to pay for an administrative position. 

Hixson told the Times News Friday he has read the first draft of Brewer’s study.

“He (Brewer) hasn’t given any recommendations in the report,” Hixson said. “What we asked him to do was identify any areas in the school district, from an operational standpoint and a school standpoint, where we could potentially save money and ensure that we’re equitably spending our BEP (state) and local funds. There are some possibilities or options on how we can do those things, but his job was not to make recommendations. That will come from the board.”

What aspect of this study will have the greatest impact on the school system?

Hixson: “The greatest impact listed directly in the report is to look at staffing, which we’re already doing. Say if we lose 30 teachers next year due to attrition, which is about what we’ve done the last two years. Instead of backfilling every one of those positions, we would look at class size ratios and we may end up filling 15 or 20 of them and saving 10 teacher salaries, while staying within the state requirements for student-teacher ratio.”

Does he talk about school facilities as well?

Hixson: “He does. He talks about school sites, and one of the pieces of evidence he collected was the long-term maintenance project list. How much we’re set to spend on each school. How much that’s going to cost the district and the age of the facility. He looked at that facility’s long-term planning list of projects that need to be done. And then he looked at a school-by-school basis on particular projects, both safety-related and routine maintenance.”

Do Keplar and McPheeters Bend have anything to worry about based on the results of this report?

Hixson: “My comment would be that everything is on the table in order to save money and make sure we’re equitably expending our funds across the school system.”

How quickly will the public be allowed to see the Brewer report?

Hixson: “It’s not my intent to hold on to that longer than needed, so as long as the board has had individual time to analyze it and forwarded any questions they may have before this goes public, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chris (Christian) and I come up with a timeline to get the report out ahead of the 31st.”

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