The results are in: findings from BOE cost analysis could determine the fate of Keplar and McPheeters Bend Schools

When the BOE voted last year not to house fourth and fifth grades at Keplar Elementary School, they received a lot of public backlash. The BOE later reversed their decision and kept those two grades at Keplar for the 2019-2020 year.

The Hawkins Co. Board of Education will present the findings from their system-wide cost analysis at a special-called meeting on March 31 at 6 p.m.

At the next regularly-scheduled meeting on April 2 at 6 p.m., the matter will be up for discussion and a possible vote based on the information discussed on March 31.

However, Director of Schools Matt Hixson noted that “the timeline allows for some flexibility based on input. (BOE Chairman Chris) Christian will determine the timeline in consult with the rest of the board.”

The results of this survey could determine the fate of the county’s two smallest schools, Keplar and McPheeter’s Bend elementary schools, which have been on the chopping block since 2015 when talks of shutting them down first began.

Readers may remember that the Board of Education actually voted in July of 2019 to bus fourth and fifth grade students from Keplar to other schools, rather than replace the two teachers who were leaving Keplar.

This decision was made in an effort to save money, as Keplar has such a low enrollment that nearly all salaries at the school are locally-funded and fall outside of the state’s Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula.

In fact, Keplar only has 85 students for the 2019-2020 school year, but the money used to pay all KES staff salaries, including both certified and classified positions, last year included roughly $447,000 from local funds, $283,000 from state funds, and $96,000 from federal funds. This came to a total of $826,000.

Hixson told the BOE in July of 2019 that eliminating the two grades at Keplar would help the BOE save about $120,000 in salaries and benefits.

However, after a vociferous uproar from the community, the BOE reversed their decision and kept fourth and fifth grades at the school for the 2019-2020 school year.

Cost-analysis survey

The BOE voted in August of 2019 to move forward with a system-wide cost analysis survey.

At that time, Hixson told the BOE that this analysis would look at “operational costs that would include salaries, and, on the operational side and the staffing side, a per-pupil expenditure for all district properties. We would look at the facilities costs, a cost on personnel, and potentially find ways to identify savings in that report.”

The survey was conducted by Dr. Keith Brewer, who is the former deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education and the former Director of Schools in Manchester, Tennessee.

After the March 5 BOE meeting, Christian told the Review that he had not yet read the entire report. He noted that between the March 5 and 31 meetings, board members will be individually reviewing the report and asking Brewer questions.

He also noted that “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.”

No decision made without the opportunity for stakeholders to weigh in

As far as the implications of the study’s findings, Hixson has said in published reports, “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.”

When asked whether or not Keplar or McPheeters Bend could be closed by the 2020-2021 school year, Hixson noted that “it is possible.”

“Many actions are also being considered,” he said. “For example, student to teacher ratios will be evaluated before any vacancy is filled. We already have this in motion, but it will likely be discussed in the report as a cost-savings measure. This cost study is exactly what we told the public would happen this year. The board is weighing all options as we look at equitable sending, cost savings, and long-term goals for the entire school system.”

When the BOE considered removing fourth and fifth grades from Keplar Elementary School last year, the Review heard many comments in support of the school such as “these schools are staples in the small communities of Keplar and McPheeters Bend” and “research shows students do better in small schools.”

“Yes, these schools are staples of the community,” Hixson told the Review in response. “We all support the culture each student experiences in a small school. However, the research shows that small class size is not the best indicator for student success. A well-trained, highly qualified teacher, interacting daily with and engaging students is the number one factor in student success. I appreciate the input. We will not make any decision affecting any schools in Hawkins without the opportunity for stakeholders to weigh in on these decisions. We also need to consider the equalization of local, state, and federal resources currently spread across all 19 schools within the county. Sometimes these tough decisions are not popular with all stakeholders, and I completely understand.”

Should the board decide to close either Keplar or McPheeters Bend schools, Hixson explained that the existing school boundaries would be used to determine what school students go to.

“However, if the board allows for parental choice, such as was discussed last Fall, we would definitely accommodate,” he added.

In regard to the commute time for these students who might be need to attend a different school, Hixson said, “Transportation has been looked at through direct experience with board members. In fact, several board members, the transportation supervisor, and I rode the KES routes several weeks ago to experience the time necessary in getting KES boundary students to and from school. The public will likely see recommended accommodations for the time our students spend on the bus in future meetings, regardless of other outcomes.”

He also noted that, should those two schools be shut down, he does not foresee any layoffs for teachers and staff.

“Given our attrition rates the past several years, we would feasibly be able to accommodate all existing staff,” he said. “However, being proactive and evaluating each resignation or retirement as they occur, assists with avoiding layoffs if/when we see another recession or dramatic decrease in enrollment. I’d rather be tight and frugal with the budget now than put teachers and staff through layoffs in the future.”