Todd Dobbins, head of the taskforce that has worked to stop the closing of the Redfield Middle School, became vocal at the White Hall School Board meeting Tuesday as he and other supporters left immediately after the board voted to close the school at the end of the 2012/2013 term. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
WHITE HALL — The White Hall School Board voted 4-2 Tuesday evening to close Redfield Middle School at the end of the current school year and move the school’s students to White Hall Middle School in the fall.
Voting to close the school were Scott Ray, board vice president; Roy Agee, board secretary; Dean Dancer and Dr. Raymond Jones. The two Redfield residents who serve on the board, Connie Medsker and D.J. Stacey, voted against closure.
Both Stacey and Medsker urged the board to keep the school open another year before Scott Pittillo, board president, called for the vote.
“Is that not something you would like to consider?” Medsker asked.
Dancer made the motion to accept Superintendent Larry Smith’s recommendation on closure, with Ray offering the necessary second.
Agee asked Smith how many additional students would be required at Redfield Middle School to keep the school open. “Forty kids,” based on current state funding levels, Smith answered.
However, the facilities issue would cost the district $3.5 to $7 million, Smith added. “It’s a two-pronged issue.”
“You guys are making a severe mistake,” Todd Dobbins, who has headed the Redfield task force opposed to the proposed closure, told the district directors as he left the board room at the district administration building.
Minutes later, Dobbins told The Commercial outside the building that the vote was a racial issue.
“If the seats are full, they are full,” Dobbins said.
When asked to elaborate, he said the board wanted White Hall Middle School at capacity should the state Department of Education order the Dollarway School District merged with the White Hall district.
“It’s obvious to us,” Dobbins said.
Representatives of the ad hoc task force asked the school board last Thursday for another year to demonstrate that Redfield’s growth warrants keeping the school open.
Dobbins acknowledged at that meeting that the enrollment numbers, a facility survey and financial data cited by Smith were “very realistic.”
Dobbins said he had “gained respect” for the board and Smith, acknowledging they face difficult choices “and it’s not going to get easier.”
The task force said residential developments and potential economic projects in Redfield would add enrollment to the White Hall district, but Dobbins acknowledged that the task force could not provide firm numbers on enrollment at the school.
Pittillo last week said the board had asked Smith to obtain the latest data on funding, facilities and enrollment, critical information that would be used to make a decision on the proposed closure of a building constructed in the 1930s.
Smith said the facilities survey indicated it would cost the district:
• Between $4.5 million and $6 million to renovate the existing Redfield school;
• $3.5 million to move the Redfield Middle School to the site occupied by Hardin Elementary School at Redfield; or
• Move Redfield’s middle school students to White Hall Middle School at no additional cost other than transportation.
Smith estimated the proposed annual savings on personnel and operating costs by closing Redfield Middle School ranged from $382,000 to $412,000.
Other financial factors, including retirement contributions, insurance and state funding, won’t be resolved until the Arkansas General Assembly concludes the session that begins Monday, Smith said.
Those economic issues include:
• The Arkansas Teacher Retirement System has sustained losses on a number of investments during the recession and is not meeting statutory requirements, requiring the local district to increase annual contributions by more than $140,000;
• Changes in the state’s health insurance program could cost the district more than $230,000 annually for 137 employees who do not participate in the state insurance plan;
• The drop in enrollment over the past six years has cost the district in excess of $1 million in state aid monies; and
• Sequestration of federal education dollars could mean a loss of $114,000 because Congress has not reached an agreement to reduce the budget deficit.
The task force has discussed petitioning the Arkansas Board of Education for authority to operate a charter school in Redfield if the middle school is closed.
The former Redfield School District was dissolved in 1949 under the Arkansas School District Reorganization Act and merged with the White Hall district the following year, according to minutes of the old Jefferson County Board of Education.
The White Hall district operates the middle school and Hardin Elementary School on two campuses at Redfield.
A number of decisions, including the fate of the Redfield school, needed to be made early this year, Smith said, explaining that teacher contracts for the 2013-14 school year go out in February.