HAZARD — Kristy Epperson and her family make their home in Perry County, but as of this week, she says her children will not be attending school in the county come August.
Epperson was one of several parents, along with students, teachers, and Principal Jeff Castle, who attended a special-called meeting of the Perry County Board of Education on Thursday, hoping the board would opt against closing her children’s school in the Big Creek community. Though she noted she was heartbroken when the final vote was tallied in favor of shutting down Big Creek Elementary for good, she wasn’t surprised.
“I felt in my heart that would be what would happen,” she said. “But I was praying with everything in me that I would be wrong.”
Big Creek Elementary was one of the county’s smallest schools in terms of enrollment, and was slated for consolidation with the Willard and A.B. Combs schools in the coming years. At the end of the 2012-13 school year, only 128 students attended classes at Big Creek, which represented a 26 percent decline since 2009. With another expected decline, officials were already looking at the prospect of several split classes, where two different grades would be taught in the same room, for the upcoming school year.
And when a flash flood hit the school on June 17, leaving several inches of standing water inside the main building and damaging the septic system, it was just another a blow for a transitional school where any funds expended to exact repairs would have to be met first with state approval, noted Superintendent Jonathan Jett.
But while the flood was a factor, Jett said it was only one that led to the board’s decision to ultimately close the Big Creek school before the upcoming year. He cited the prospect of split classes as being the main issue.
“My big concern as superintendent has to be the educational environment,” Jett said after Thursday’s meeting. “I don’t feel like split grades would put the students in the best educational environment. With the new standards and accountability system, I just think it’s not fair to the students, it’s not fair to the teachers.”
The board approved the closure by a margin of 3-1, with Debbie McIntosh, whose district includes Big Creek, casting the sole “no” vote. She said after the meeting that while she understood her fellow board members’ reasons for voting to close the school, it wasn’t a vote she could cast herself.
“When I ran (for school board member) I promised I would protect that school, and I keep my word,” she said.
The school’s damaged septic system was of particular concern, board members noted after the meeting. It was working but in need of replacement before the flood, and damage sustained on June 17 was going to represent a significant cost in repairs. Even then, there was no guarantee, they said, the system would last the entire school year. Had it failed during the year, the board would have been forced to close the school then.
“I feel sorry for those parents and kids, I know it’s emotional, but we have to look at all the factors that’s involved in this,” said board member Jerry Stacy. “As board members we’ve got to vote what’s best for the entire district.”
Within the district, Big Creek students will have the option to attend either the A.B. Combs or Willard schools, though board member Charlene Miller noted several Big Creek students had already registered at the new East Perry Elementary School even prior to last week’s flood. She said the school at Big Creek would have been lucky to have had 100 students when the new year begins.
Regardless, Kristy Epperson said she won’t send her children to either Willard or A.B. Combs, and plans to enroll them at Leslie County’s nearby W.B. Muncy school. She expects many other parents will also send their children to either Leslie County, which is just a few miles from Big Creek, or to the Hazard city schools.
Principal Jeff Castle said he also expects students to enroll outside of the district, but he understands the board’s decision to close the school was based on several factors, including the expected loss of enrollment and the consolidation plan that board members say could result in a new school within three years.
“And then the flood on top of all that, it was just too much to overcome,” Castle said. “When they’ve (the board) got a vision for the district to move forward, you have to support what they’re doing.”
No staff member at Big Creek will lose his or her job as a result of the closure, Jett added, noting that “everybody is under contract with us for the school year.” A principal’s meeting is scheduled for next week, he said, and he expects officials to work on personnel issues relating to the staff at Big Creek for the rest of the week.
That may be some relief for parents who on Thursday called the teachers and principal at Big Creek the best in the district, but for them there will still be something missing once the new school year begins.
“I feel sorry for these teachers and Mr. Castle,” Epperson said. “We’re all one big family, and now that family is being split up.”