REDFIELD – Residents of this Jefferson County town are treading the same ground as other communities, including Gillett in Arkansas County and Weiner in Poinsett County, in taking action to save their community schools.
Todd Dobbins, chairman of the Keep Redfield Middle School Task Force, acknowledged Saturday he could not say Redfield Middle School students will be attending White Hall Middle School in the fall.
The White Hall School Board on Jan. 8 voted 4-2 to close the Redfield school at the end of the current school year and transfer the students to White Hall Middle School.
The task force in a public meeting Thursday evening discussed a number of options available, including establishment of an open enrollment charter school, asking the state Board of Education for the former Redfield School District to withdraw from the White Hall district and reverse the merger of 1950, and home schooling Redfield students.
In December, the state Board of Education for a second time denied the DeWitt School District permission to close Gillett Elementary School. Gillett Elementary is the only school still open in Gillett after schools there merged with the DeWitt district years ago.
DeWitt School Superintendent Gary Wayman told the state board he is worried about the district going into fiscal distress, saying the district could save $241,000 annually by closing the Gillett school, which has 76 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.
After the Harrisburg School Board voted 4 to 1 to close Weiner High School, residents of the western Poinsett County town prepared for battle.
“It will be devastating for the town should the school close,” said Weiner resident Greta Greeno, who comes from three generations of Weiner graduates. “You can look at rural schools all across not just in Arkansas, but where schools have closed and the town dries up.”
Petitions for an open enrollment charter school were circulated at the task force sponsored meeting at American Legion Post 343.
Dobbins told the standing-room-only crowd that basic facts and numbers were misrepresented to both White Hall and Redfield school patrons in recent years in an orchestrated plan.
He said White Hall district patrons were told that state education officials mandated the conversion from the junior high to middle school format, which required a 17-classroom addition to White Hall High School.
A copy of an email sent to Dobbins Thursday from the Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation stated the division “does not require or mandate school districts to perform grade reconfigurations within the school district,” according to Charles C. Stein, division director.
Dobbins suggested moving sixth-grade from local elementary schools to the middle schools and ninth-graders from the middle schools to WHHS was designed to leave the appearance of a declining enrollment.
“We don’t have a declining enrollment at Redfield,” he told the crowd. “We have a ninth grade that was moved out of the community.
“None of what we were told was true,” Dobbins emphasized several times, adding no record exists of the state department ordering the removal of portable buildings removed from White Hall district campuses.
A legal challenge over the Redfield Middle School closure will be costly and time consuming, Redfield patrons were told, as would a bid to withdraw from the White Hall district since the latter district would be expected to oppose the measure.
Alderman Darrell Hedden told the Redfield City Council Tuesday that if the middle school is closed, the community expects the White Hall district to turn the building, constructed in the 1930s, over to the municipality for use by local residents.
If the district fails to release the building with no strings attached, Hedden said he would ask the council to adopt an ordinance declaring the structure a nuisance and ordering the district to demolish the building.
White Hall School District Superintendent Larry Smith told the school board a facilities survey indicated it would cost the district between $4.5 million and $6 million to renovate the existing Redfield school and $3.5 million to move the Redfield Middle School to district-owned property occupied by Hardin Elementary School at Redfield, while closing the middle school and busing its students to White Hall Middle School would only involve transportation costs.
The annual potential savings on personnel and operating costs by closing Redfield Middle School range from $382,000 to $412,000, Smith projected.
The economic issues facing the district include the potential for an increase of more than $140,000 in contributions to the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System; changes in the state’s health insurance program could cost the district more than $230,000 annually for 137 employees; the drop in enrollment over the past six years has cost the district in excess of $1 million in state aid monies; and unanswered questions about the sequestration of federal education funds that could reach $114,000.
Pine Bluff, Watson Chapel, Dollarway and White Hall schools face a declining enrollment, Dobbins added, and the Pine Bluff district is discussing the closure of schools because of declining enrollment.
And, he added, White Hall has “overspent and overbuilt knowing they had a declining enrollment.”
The updated facilities plan for the White Hall district calls for the construction of an arts-theater complex at White Hall High School, Dobbins observed, and a multi-purpose building on the WHHS campus for athletics, band and ROTC programs.
“The White Hall School Board will put up a fight,” Dobbins told the crowd. “I say take the tax dollars back.
“Who else is going to do it?” he asked. “It is your community.”