After first bringing up the possibility of closing Keplar and McPheeter’s Bend Elementary Schools several years ago, the Hawkins Co. Board of Education voted 6-1 at their May 7 meeting to close the doors at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

The decision to close these schools was made in an effort to save money, as both schools had fewer than 100 students enrolled for the 2019-2020 school year, and, therefore, do not qualify for BEP (Basic Education Program) funding.

The BEP is the funding formula through which state education dollars are generated and distributed to Tennessee schools. The state BEP funding formula does not fund schools with less than 100 students for a principal, and neither school qualifies for a guidance counselor a librarian, or a music teacher.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the BOE planned to present the findings from the system-wide cost analysis survey (which ultimately determined the schools’ fates) in a special-called meeting on March 31 and possibly hold a public input meeting shortly after. However, COVID-19 brought a change in plans.

Roadmap to closing the schools

“This topic is not one we take lightly and is one that must be addressed,” BOE Chairman Chris Christian told the board.

As part of Christian’s proposal, the schools will close “if student numbers do not rise to current BEP funding requirements.”

At the close of the 2019-2020 school year, Keplar had 78 students and McPheeter’s Bend had 90.

Christian also proposed that an outside contractor perform a boundary study “to determine the shortest routes for our students as well as updating software and logistics for Hawkins Co. school transportation.” These outcomes “could affect school zoning” and determine what busses students will ride.

Students can request what school to attend

Also according to Christian’s proposal, students from Keplar can request to attend Surgoinsville, Church Hill or McPheeter’s Bend (if numbers meet BEP funding) Elementary Schools. Otherwise, Keplar students will attend Joseph Rogers Primary, Hawkins Elementary or Rogersville Middle Schools.

McPheeter’s Bend students will attend Church Hill Elementary School “unless other determinations are made over the course of the 2020-2021 school year with the busing and zoning study.”

The school system will also hold parent meetings with all affected students in the spring of 2021.

Christian also noted that “any school that should fall below the BEP funding requirements will be considered for closure with procedures to be developed by the administration and board.”

COVID-19 prevented public input meeting…for now

During the board’s March meeting, Christian told the board he wants the public to have an opportunity to weigh in before a decision is made. However, with social distancing protocol still largely in place, Christian explained that these public meetings were unable to occur.

“We had set up multiple timelines to meet with Mr. Brewer (who conducted the cost analysis survey), the community, the students and citizens of this county to go over the survey,” Christian said on Thursday. “Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to where we can effectively do that.”

However, he noted that community meetings will be held during the process of the aforementioned zoning and busing studies to solicit community input.

Background

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. 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.

In August of 2019, the BOE voted 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 results of the survey, which came back in March and are available for view at https://www.hck12.net/, clearly broke down the potential savings associated with closing the schools.

The report also noted that closing either or both Keplar or McPheeter’s Bend could “reduce costs in staff and school operations.”

In fact, closing Keplar would reduce the district’s budget by $684,457.00, and closing McPheeter’s Bend would save $639,455.00. If the district transfers teachers at the schools to other jobs (within the county), the reduction in expenditures will decrease to an estimated $400,000 at Kelpar and an estimated $400,000 at McPheeter’s Bend.

Without this BEP funding, the money used to pay all Keplar staff salaries for the 2018-2019 year, 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.

During Thursday’s vote, only member Judy Trent voted ‘no’ to the school closures; however, she voted ‘yes’ to the other aspects of Christian’s motion such as the busing and zoning study, the provision determining which new school students will attend and the ability for Keplar students to request to attend a different school.

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