Pine Bluff School District Superintendent Linda Watson and members of her administration met with around 100 parents and other concerned residents Tuesay evening in Greenville Elementary School’s cafeteria to lay out the case for why she plans to recommend that the school should be closed at the end of the current school year.
“The school board has the final say here,” Watson said. “They gave us a mandate 60 days ago and we started gathering information to provide the board with what it needed to decide on what to close. The fact is that in order for this school district to remain fiscally sound we cannot continue to operate the number of schools that we have now as we continue to lose students and the funding that goes with them. The district must also increase class sizes to approximately 22 students and reduce the number of teachers, administrators and other staff through natural attrition over the next one to two years to remain financially viable.”
Watson said the PBSD has lost 1,226 students in the past six years, which translates to a loss of more than $7.5 million in funding over that time period.
“The school district is currently operating classes with 12 to 14 students, which is below state standards,” Watson said. “We actually had looked at the possibility of closing more than one school this year. But we have nine schools on school improvement and five priority schools so we decided to wait for any closings to be put off until the next academic year. We’re looking at closing Greenville right now and if we continue to lose students the closings aren’t over.”
Watson said that after looking at all schools in the district the final choice on which school to close came down to Greenville or Oak Park Elementary.
“Why Greenville? This is what you all want to know,” Watson said. “Greenville needs more work done that Oak Park has already had done. Greenville needs a new heating and cooling system which would cost $100,000 and Oak Park already has a new one. Greenville also needs to have a new roof which would cost another $125,000 and Oak Park has a new roof.”
Watson said Greenville also has the lowest enrollment of any district elementary school.
“Greenville has fewer students and fewer teaching staff which means it has less students and staff to be transferred to other schools in the district,” Watson said.
Watson said if the current trend continues then Oak Park will be up for closure next followed by a secondary school that was not named.
“If we don’t get students back in this district we will be looking at other schools,” Watson said.
Watson said students who are transferred from Greenville will continue to receive bus transportation to and from their new school.
“If there are siblings who are currently attending the same school they will be able to attend the same new school,” Watson said. “If a parent doesn’t like the school that their child is assigned they can apply for a transfer to another school. If it is granted transportation will be provided for that child.”
Watson said the schools where the district plans to transfer Greenville students if the school board approves the closing recommendation are Broadmoor, Southwood, 34th Avenue and Oak Park.
Audience members questioned whether Greenville was really the right school to close, with some citing the fact that with its inside hallway classrooms Greenville is a safer campus in terms of potential intruders than Oak Park, which has classrooms that open individually into the outdoors.
Others questioned why more has not been done to stem the tide of departing students.
“We have been losing students because of school choice,” Watson said in reference to the ability of some students to request a transfer to a neighboring school district. “Before we had students who wanted to move to a different school in the district who were denied and they then applied to transfer under school choice. I changed that. Now if a student wants to transfer within the district we work with the parents to make that happen.”
Watson said that besides school choice the district is fighting the lure of charter schools that are vying for students.
“If we could pull together to make student achievement the main focus that is what will bring students back to the district,” Watson said.
Watson continued to reinforce the idea that the choice was not an easy one to make but is necessary for the district’s overall health.
Greenville principal Karen Enright told the concerned audience that while she was also dismayed by the situation she knew that it was a necessary step.
“As principal of Greenville it is hard to see this school close,” Enright said. “We have five young teachers here and it is the first year for a couple of them. Some of our classrooms have no more than 13 or 14 students. If we continue to do what we’re doing we will have teachers lose jobs. Nobody wants to see a school close but I hear what Dr. Watson is saying. What are we going to do when the money runs out?”
School board president Piccola Washington reminded those in attendance of what is at stake.
“We don’t want to become like Dollarway and get taken over by the state,” Washington said. “We’ve got to figure out a way out of this. We ask that you work with us and listen to the facts.”