HAZARD – The Perry County Board of Education on Thursday delayed a vote to prioritize future construction projects in the district, including the proposed consolidation of three elementary schools and the replacement of another.
The board’s members met at its central office before a packed board room, and was set to vote on a district facilities plan finalized by the district’s local planning committee earlier this year. The plan calls for the consolidation of Willard, Big Creek, and A.B. Combs elementary schools as the district’s top facilities priority, which would result in a new school at an estimated cost of $14 million and a capacity of 600 students. The next priority would be to replace Chavies Elementary with a new facility.
After much discussion, however, a vote on the plan didn’t take place.
The plan did not sit well with some in the audience opposed to consolidation. The Big Creek and Willard schools are two of the smallest in the district with enrollments of well under 300 students each, with Big Creek at just over 100 during the current school year. One audience member articulated concerns she has with the plan, and fears a school with an enrollment of 600 students would negatively affect class sizes and upset students who are acclimated to smaller student enrollments.
Others in the audience were more interested in the construction of a new school to replace Chavies Elementary, a school noted as one of the buildings in the county most in need of replacement.
“We just really need a new school,” said Chavies Principal Eddie Browning as he told the board of a litany of issues with the building at Chavies, from a sunken floor to cracked walls. “We’ve got a big hole in our floor where they drilled through and pumped concrete in trying to push the floor up, and it still sinks.”
Though enrollment at Chavies would be much less than the 600 estimated at a consolidated facility, a new school at Chavies may have a leg up on the consolidation plan. Board member Charlene Miller said she was informed by Judge-Executive Denny Ray Noble that the board overseeing the Coalfields Industrial Park in Chavies would likely be agreeable to handing over several acres of land on which a new school could be built.
“They’re willing to donate us 15 acres of land that’s definitely not in the flood zone, that we can build a new school on,” Miller said. “He just has to get approval from some gentlemen at the state.”
While there are currently no options for a suitable tract of land on which to build the consolidated school, there are several other variables that should be considered in choosing which project the board should approve first, said Jody Maggard, the district’s finance officer who also sits on the local planning committee. Those variables include not only the physical need, but also student enrollment in the district, which Maggard noted is projected to continue to decline as it has for the past 20 years.
“We’ve maintained 11 schools over the last 10 years,” Maggard said. “We’ve lost over 600 kids, and we still have … the same facilities. I said this to the [local planning committee] and I know it’s not a very popular statement to make, certainly, but we really have to ask the question, are we still a district that needs 11 schools?”
With a declining population in Perry County, Maggard said it doesn’t appear the district’s enrollment will significantly increase, and from a financial standpoint the option of consolidation would replace three of the district’s worst buildings with one new school where the cost to the district per student would be significantly less.
Additionally, Maggard answered in response to a question posed during the meeting, the district would save approximately $1 million per year in maintenance costs by consolidating those three schools.
But there was also concern that consolidation would pose difficulty in obtaining a new school for Chavies later on. Perry County resident Douglas Bryant said consolidating Big Creek, Willard, and A.B. Combs could potentially, through redrawn district lines and bus routes, pull enough students away from Chavies that building a new school would no longer be an option there.
“When you consolidate … Chavies won’t have enough [students] to build a new school,” Bryant said. “That’s the reality. Nobody wants to say it, but that’s the reality. You don’t have enough students left to build a new school.”
Whatever project the board decides to list as its top priority will likely mean it would be years down the road before the second school is built, according to Maggard. Even though the school district has a bonding potential of $22 million and the bond on Perry Central is nearly paid off, building a new school in Chavies and a new consolidated school at the same time probably won’t be in the cards.
“If you go in the direction of doing Chavies first, we’re talking maybe years down the road coming back to and revisiting this A.B., Big Creek, Willard issue,” Maggard said. “We want to make it clear, because I think it’s unlikely we could do both simultaneously.”
The board must approve a facilities plan and submit it to the state by May 1. Interim Superintendent Jonathan Jett said the board could approve the plan as submitted by the local planning committee, but even then there would be some future flexibility in regard to which project should be completed first.
“You still have the specific decision-making ability later on in the process when either land is donated or land is purchased as to which one you start,” Jett advised. “The plan as it’s written gives you flexibility to choose either project at a later date.”
Board member James Ritchie reiterated the plan also calls for the consolidation of three of the district’s schools, and that’s not a plan on which he is sold just yet.
“By approving that plan, you’re agreeing to consolidate Willard, Big Creek, and A.B.,” Ritchie said. “That’s something that some people don’t want, though. We need to listen to these people. I don’t know if we should do that or not.”
Following a discussion lasting nearly an hour and a half, board member Debbie McIntosh, who represents the district in which Big Creek, Willard, and A.B. Combs are located, said she wanted to hear from as many people as possible before making a decision.
“I’m not going to impose something on everybody until we can reach common ground,” McIntosh said.
Board member Jerry Stacy moved to allow the board time to devise its own facilities plan, which was seconded by Ritchie and carried with a majority vote.
Once the board completes its own plan, it must be submitted to the Kentucky Department of Education before making its way back to the board and the local planning committee. The committee can then accept or reject the plan, and if rejected, the board and committee will go into mediation, explained McIntosh.
“I think the board and the committee should get together to try to do the best for the most students,” she said, “and we don’t want to leave anybody’s opinion out.”