Enrollment decline results in school closures


Student enrollment numbers continued to decline steadily throughout 2013 in the Pine Bluff School District and the neighboring Dollarway School District, forcing each to close a school in order to reduce costs in the face of declining revenue.

The school closures were voted the No. 6 local news story of 2013 by The Commercial’s newsroom staff.

PBSD Superintendent Linda Watson recommended the closing of Greenville Elementary School in the late winter of 2013 and hosted several public meetings on the topic to lay out her reasons for the move and to receive input from the community.

“It’s not that we want to close schools; it’s that we need to be efficient and effective in the way that we use district funds,” Watson said at a March 4 meeting in the Pine Bluff High School Little Theater. “I like to compare it to a family that has two incomes that are reduced to one income. When that happens you have to make some adjustments and because this school district continues to lose students we are losing the income that each of those students represents.”

Watson said in March that under the school closing plan no district staff would lose their jobs.

“We will reduce staff through natural attrition as staff members retire,” Watson said. “Most of the money the district receives goes towards staff salaries. We usually lose around 40 teachers every year through attrition. Greenville Elementary has 30 staff members so they should be accounted for under this plan.”

Watson said in March that the original plan to address the problem of dropping enrollment involved the closure of two schools and the shifting of students.

“We were really looking at closing two schools at the end of this year as well as shifting the ninth grade to Pine Bluff High School and splitting the sixth through the eighth grades between Bel Air and Southeast Middle Schools,” Watson said. “Under that plan we would keep the current Jack Robey building and close either Belair or Southeast. But due to the current academic status of the district we were advised to hold off on doing this for now.”

The Pine Bluff School Board voted unanimously March 12 to close Greenville at the end of the 2012-2013 school year, citing a continued decline in district enrollment and a consequent decrease in revenue.

Dollarway

The Dollarway District made its own tough decision a month later when then-Superintendent Frank Anthony held a public meeting at Altheimer-Martin Elementary School to announce his decision to recommend that school’s closure at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

“We are looking at economies of scale here,” Anthony said at the April 9 meeting in Altheimer. “Money is what drives all of our actions and the loss of enrollment is the driver in this situation. The loss of students should mean a reduction in staff but that has been put off and has led us to where we are today.”

Anthony said that in some cases decisions of the mind must take precedence over decisions of the heart.

“Sometimes the head has to lead the heart and this is one of those times,” Anthony said in April.

“My position is to try to be proactive and I have to make a recommendation to Dr. Kimbrell,” Anthony said at the time, referring to state Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell. “Come June 30 we will have to cease instructional operations at Martin Elementary. We evaluated this situation for the past 11 months. When you start talking about closing schools you are affecting livelihoods. I am not a stranger to this. As superintendent in the Pine Bluff School District I had to oversee the closure of eight schools. It was not pleasant but it had to be done to keep the district solvent.”