Times Journal

Posted May 1, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Hard numbers faced off against high emotion on Tuesday, April 23 as the Russell County Board of Education voted with a vote of three to one, with one board member absent, to begin the closing process of Union Chapel Elementary School.

In a meeting that last three hours and 15 minutes and saw well over 200 concerned county residents gather in the ANC Auditorium, the finality, after all the emotional pleas, came down to a whirlwind 30 seconds in which a motion was made, seconded, voted and the meeting adjourned, while those in attendance did not get the opportunity to express the outrage that had been clearly building throughout the meeting.

And while facts began the meeting, it was emotions that ended it. After the facts and figures were laid out by school personnel and a state expert, audience members were given the opportunity to approach the microphone and speak to the board members who had the responsibility of making a vote one way or the other.

While some appealed to alternative plans, such as forcing more students to go to Union Chapel, or redirecting money being utilized elsewhere, many pleas were direct, emotional, and due to the quality of education the school has provided for them or their family over many generations.

And others were angry.

“If you all make this decision tonight, every board member who votes for this ought to be run out of the county,” said former Russell County Judge Executive Mickey Garner to cheering applause. Garner contended that (if) children attended where they were districted there wouldn’t be a problem, and that if the sixth grade moves to the ANC for instruction the school will undoubtedly have to build a covered walkway to the main school.

Garner also questioned the timing of the called meeting, noting that the missing board member, Brenda Higginbotham, was meeting an obligation, acting as chaperone in New York for school students.

Board member Gerald Murray, who represents the district in which Union Chapel Elementary resides, made clear he was not pleased with the whole matter.

“Anybody sitting here on this board should be ashamed to discuss closing,” Murray said, saying he guaranteed he would find ways to cut spending to keep the school open.

“I’d like to move my seat to the other end of the table because I’m ashamed to sit by them,” Murray said after chastising board members for contemplating the closure; a threat he would later act on as his motion to table the issue to a later date died for lack of a second, not allowing it to be voted on.

Letters of students were read, and a brave young man came to the microphone to appeal directly. There were placards exclaiming “kids love Union Chapel” and “kids come first, keep Union Chapel open,” and everyone who spoke, save one, spoke out against closing the school.

Former Teacher of the Year for the state of Kentucky, Jamestown Elementary’s Donnie Wilkerson, expressed that while the change makes for feelings of uncertainty, and that displacements may take place of teachers other than those at Union Chapel, including himself, that Jamestown Elementary as well as the other schools would welcome the new students with open arms if Union Chapel were to close.

Assurance had been given by Ford and Adams that no employee of Union Chapel Elementary would lose their job due to the school closing.

After the motion by Murray to table the issue died, and an appeal to those gathered by board member Wayne Gosser, Board Chair Julie Beckman asked for any other motions. The crowd showed restlessness and as one yelled out “why don’t you just go ahead and make the motion,” Beckman followed immediately with a motion to close the school following the end of the academic year and direct central staff to begin realignment.

The vote was Beckman, Gosser and Steve Kerr for closure and Murray against.

The emotional appeals to keep the school open and sudden vote followed the facts and figures which started out the discussion.

During the three presentations the audience remained respectful and attentive.

Beginning the segment of the meeting dedicated to the issue, Assistant Superintendent Michael Ford introduced Judy Littleton, Branch Manager with the Division of Consolidated Plans and Audits branch of the Kentucky Department of Education.

Over the next approximate hour those in attendance listened to the board members.

Union Chapel Elementary School is seeing a continuous decline in enrollment. Figures show each school has seen an incredible decrease over the past five years. As an example, Jamestown Elementary has seen student spending of $7,075 per student in the 2007-08 school year to $5,471 last school year and projected to be even less this year. With the continued loss of per student spending, the discrepancy between what is spent per student at Union Chapel versus the other schools becomes glaring.

For the 2012-13 school year, July 1 through March, the per student spending for each school has been Jamestown Elementary-$3,589; Russell Springs Elementary-$3,606; Salem Elementary-$3,901, Union Chapel Elementary-$5,581, Russell County High School-$3,350, and middle school-$3,456.

While not endorsing any particular resolution, Littleton expressed that she has been involved in many school district restructurings and consolidations and that in the state there are many districts having to face the same reality.

She said she saw only three solutions: do nothing, but in so doing they must follow staffing procedures and continue spending at a rate of two to one on the Union Chapel students, or raise spending of the other schools up so that resources are equitable, resulting in financial crisis, or the third to close the school spreading the resources to the other schools along with the students.

Currently there are 132 students at Union Chapel, adding to the per student cost because of the year to year loss of students, with 2006-07 school year showing 193 students, according to a chart presented by Ford.

Ford presented facts surrounding how the breakdown of per student spending happens, from school bills such as electricity and maintenance, to staffing such as teachers with few students and a fully staffed lunch room which has run a $28,000 deficit in the last two years.

In an effort to explain how the district got in this shape, a situation many school districts are facing in the state and nation, Ford showed that past overstaffing of schools played a part, as did the cuts by state and federal aid with no requisite tax increase locally to offset those major cuts.

Superintendent Kenny Pickett, who remained quiet through most of the issue, added that since he became superintendent the state has recommended they shut down the school every year before adding that he was not going to give his personal opinion on the matter.