On Keplar Elementary, Economies of Scale, and the Hard Sell

As soon as word got out that the district was eyeing two schools for closure, folks from the Keplar community started gearing up for battle. Petitions were created, Facebook groups formed, and public outrage incited.  A community meeting has been scheduled for Monday, and Mrs. Patti is already on the agenda for the BOE meeting later in the week (December 3 @ the Charles Fuller Board Room & Training Center at 6PM.)  Although closure discussions will not resume until January, I’d imagine scores of parents will be in attendance to voice concerns now, and those, who don’t speak, will support the cause by putting the stank-eye on Director Starnes, who’ll be expecting as much.

I mean no one thought Keplar would take the news lying down.  That’s not how they roll.

Unlike other small rural communities, who may lack political clout and be virtually powerless against such actions, Keplar folks have always had access to a large network of supporters, a knack for organizing on short notice, and a simple willingness to raise all sorts of hell.  As I recall, last time the district made noise about shutting the school down, it was Momma-n-em who mobilized a hoard of angry matrons and marched over to Rogersville in an ominous cloud of Virginia Slim cigarette smoke – 50+ of them, all full of piss and vinegar – pitchforks raised and torches burning.  Okay, it may not have happened exactly like that, but the reality was closer than you’d think – and I’m nearly certain Aunt Bert did threaten to slap the Superintendent of Schools plumb into next Sunday, then slap him again right before Church, so she could ask the Lord for forgiveness on both sins all at once.

I certainly don’t envy current leaders, who are about to butt heads with this formidable bunch.  And politician friends: take heed. When these folks come calling – and trust me, they will – you must’nt be rude, callous, condescending, or dismissive because I promise, if you act ugly, they’ll never forget.  Keplar women can and will hold a grudge until Jesus comes back…  at which time they’ll probably tell Him about your wrongdoings and perhaps recommend some punishment for you… you know, just in case the Lord finds Himself at a loss as to what type of plague or pestilence needs to be unleashed upon your household.     

Keep in mind that, for them, this fight isn’t just about saving a school.  It is about preserving a community, its history, and all the relationships therein.

For many years, Keplar School served as the central gathering place for people from Burem to Beech Creek and all the hills, hollers and dirt roads in between. Generations of families were educated there, voted there, socialized there, played rec ball on the fields, organized dances or wrestling matches in the gym, held civic meetings in the library, and played bingo in the cafeteria (well, up until the state decided Bingo was invented by the Devil to entice poor widder women into gambling and outlawed it, which made little sense to our grandmothers, who were playing .25 cards for the chance to win a stack of tumblers from the Plastic Plant.)

Once upon a time, the school’s annual Fall Festival was the most anticipated social event of the season, attended by all, whether they had school-aged children or not.  In fact, the attendance record for those Festivals was shattered only once – by the 1986 Spring Fling during which a Greased Pig Contest and Womanless Fashion Show were held.  The show, if I remember correctly, featured several prominent & downright lovely men from the community, including former School Superintendent Tommy Dykes, rest his soul, and a very young, bonneted, and lacy-bloomered Greg Simpson, who now serves as Vice Principal at the local middle school.  Oh, and Johnny McLain caught the greased pig.  I know this to be a fact- because I fell madly in love with him on that very day and remained so for a good 3-4 days afterward. What girl wouldn’t be impressed by a boy able to wrestle a lard-soaked pig to the ground?

I can also tell you that every single child who has attended Keplar – from the first class coming out of the one-room schoolhouse on the hill to the current crop there now – all have stories just like these, stories that overlap, intertwine, and sometimes even contradict the stories of another. And it is THAT connectedness, those bonds formed through shared memories and experiences that Keplar folks are fighting to safeguard just as much as or moreso than small class sizes and shorter bus rides.

For this reason, the projected savings of closure are going to mean very little to them, and they’re not likely to see the valid points the district has.  And yes, they do have a few.

Enrollment at both schools has been on a slow but steady decline – sad symptoms of larger economic problems in the county.  The cost of providing access to the same services, equipment, and materials at underutilized schools is higher than the district norm. I’d also guess that the state’s BEP funding formula leaves us coming out of pocket for more of the salaries than we should – and I do believe the district has already done all it can in terms of sharing resources and services to cut costs at both schools.

The facility is undoubtedly in need of significant repairs/renovation.  I know there are those arguing a coat of paint would fix things right up – but c’mon, the building is 65 years old.  It has survived probably 30 years beyond its anticipated lifespan, is required to meet demands that were inconceivable at the time of its construction and, quite frankly, has been neglected.  As a result, it has problems a lil’ Dutch Boy can’t fix.  And, contrary to popular belief, we’re probably not going to scrape enough dollars and cents out of the existing budget to cover the estimated 800k needed to fund repairs. (But here is a copy of the budget resolution for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. If anyone thinks they can pinpoint specific areas/accounts where cuts should be made, I’m all for the trying.  Likewise, if anyone can get a corporate sponsor to swoop in and save the day, I’ll insist you be named Mayor of Keplar.)

A more realistic scenario, however, is that taxpayers will be asked to put their money where their mouth is.

For that reason, I am keeping my mouth shut and mind open.  If our current Director – a fellow Keplar alumni who knew precisely what a huge pile of poo he’d be stepping in here – feels the system’s financial outlook warrants jumping into the mess with both feet, I can at least withhold judgement until I hear “the alternative.”  I’ll admit, however, it is going to be a hard sell.

Let’s be honest – closing a school, particularly a high-performing one, is never a “best”option.  It’s divisive, disruptive, affects students, teachers, parents, changes relationships, routines, financial situations, communities, and there’s absolutely zero educational advantages to be had.

All existing evidence overwhelmingly supports the effectiveness of smaller schools.

Small schools mean smaller class sizes, which translates to individualized attention and more time for teacher to identify and address problems as well as accommodate different learning styles.  We know this leads to measurable gains and positive student outcomes. Granted, these particular students will transition to larger schools where performance tends to equalize over time, but those early gains are thought to be especially important for economically disadvantaged students. (Howley, C., Strange, M., & Bickel, R. (2000). Research about school size and school performance in impoverished communities. Report No. EDO-RC-00-01).  (In 2013-14, 89% of Keplar’s student body was considered economically disadvantaged.) 

Smaller schools are also considered safer. They report fewer behavior problems (truancy, discipline issues, vandalism, etc.) The interpersonal relationships between parents, teachers, students and community members are thought to be more positive and productive, and a smaller student body usually means more opportunities for students to participate in school activities, teams, or clubs, leaving a smaller percentage feeling overlook or alienated.  *Kathleen Cotton, School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance (Portland, OR: NWREL), 1996, pp 10-11, a comprehensive review of formal research studies on school size.

Bottom Line: Districts are encouraged to preserve existing small schools whenever it is practical.

If I am to be convinced that Keplar is no longer practical, I’ll need more information, details, facts, specifics, the plan, a timeline, numbers – and I want to know how the district leadership arrived at those numbers… not that I don’t trust them.  I just think they might lie a little a lot of the time.

When discussions regarding possible closures resume on January 14th, I would like to see per-student operating cost at each school (with and without renovation costs factored in.) I would like to see a redistricting map with bus routes marked. Would the system be able to bus students and remain within the max transit time? Would additional routes or drivers be necessary? Considering the ongoing driver shortage we have now, how would we recruit and retain more drivers? Heck, we’ve tried everything short of having a tap dancing sign-guy stationed on the 4-lane above town.  Also, considering the age/grade level, what negative impacts might longer commutes have?  How might distance/access to private transportation affect attendance, participation in extra-curricular activities/programs, and parent involvement? (All things directly linked to academic performance.)

Another concern is: most of the potential receiving schools are already running well over 300 students. What impact would projected enrollments have on existing space and class size? Can the system provide a facility needs assessment on both the closing and receiving schools? I’d be interested in knowing if receiving schools are in better, worse, or the same condition as the schools marked for closure.  And would there be space on the receiving campus to expand/absorb more students later should the population trend shift? Would any of the potential redistricting alter secondary school designations? If so, is that plan consistent with future growth projections from other feeder schools where the county IS seeing growth?

And I know redistricting and/or expansion has been discussed for Surgoinsville Elementary due to overcrowding. Is this related? Would the proposed expansion be required to absorb Keplar students? Would expansions/improvements be required at any of the receiving schools in the next 2-3 years? If so, would it be possible to see a side-by-side cost analysis for each project – expansion(s) versus renovation(s)?  Would perhaps another option be to redirect students from overcrowded schools to Keplar?

Also, what instructional changes would students face at receiving schools – for example: would they go from having one classroom teacher to changing classes? What would a sample student and teacher schedule with RTI2 look like? How would you determine which teachers to retain? How would this work with tenured staff? Is it possible that low-performing educators would end up displacing non-tenured but highly qualified, successful teachers? How would you factor in loss of the steady stream of grant money Keplar tends to secure? And what educational programs unique to each school (such as before and after hours instruction or Summer reading programs) would be affected? Can all programs be reasonably continued or maintained at the receiving school? Considering that displaced/relocated students would live a greater distance from the school, how would the district ensure that they still have access to programs? What methods, if any, could be used to (1) acclimate families to the receiving school or (2) accommodate transportation needs?

How would you divvy-up/transport equipment/materials from the closing schools to receiving schools? What transition costs might be incurred? (Overtime, moving expenses, central office services, audits or other professional services, expenses related to staff layoffs, transition coordinators, integration events between closing and receiving schools) How would you handle unwanted or unneeded technology, supplemental curriculum, furniture, etc.?  What would happen to the vacant properties?  How much will it cost the county to insure/maintain vacant buildings should they not be immediately sold?

I also want to know how this lawsuit might change the situation?

Lots of questions, I know – but if Board wishes to avoid hard feelings, disgruntled voters, and grudges that will be held until the second coming of the Lord – it is important that the estimation of savings be accurate, the unseen costs to the community, students, and county at-large be taken into consideration, and all interested parties be included in open and honest discussions before any decisions are made.

And even then, they should also be prepared for the fact that most still aren’t going to buy it.



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