Altheimer-Martin Elementary School will be recommended for closure at the end of the current school year because of a continuing drop in enrollment, Dollarway School District Superintendent Frank Anthony said Tuesday.
Anthony briefed a large group of school staff, parents, students and supporters during an open forum held in the school cafeteria about the deteriorating financial position of the school district. Anthony will make his recommendation that the school be closed to state education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell.
“We are looking at economies of scale here,” Anthony said. “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.
Anthony faced a large screen set up at the front of the cafeteria upon which a PowerPoint presentation was projected.
“Overstaffing in relation to the number of students led to deficit spending over the past three years,” Anthony said as he pointed to information on the screen. “In the 2009-10 school year the district spent $818,770 more than it took in. In the 2010-11 school year the amount was $355,840. Last year the district spent $1.2 million more than it took in.”
Anthony said that if that rate of spending were to continue through the end of the 2013-14 school year the district would be completely insolvent.
“We would be b-r-o-k-e; broke,” Anthony said.
Anthony said that each enrolled child represents $6,267 in revenue to the school district.
The case for closure
“Altheimer-Martin had 119 students two years ago and as of April 5 it had 78 students,” Anthony said. “That amounts to $488,826 coming to the district. Projected expenses for the upcoming school year for this school come to $1.2 million. The end result is a drain of $700,000 on school district funds.”
Anthony said that Altheimer-Martin is one of three priority schools in the Dollarway district.
“Priority schools are classified by the state as among the lowest 5 percent of schools based on proficiency,” Anthony said. “Townsend Park Elementary and James Matthews Elementary both met state standards while Altheimer-Martin did not. Dollarway has three of the 50 lowest performing schools in the state with Dollarway High School and Robert Morehead Middle School also priority schools.”
“My position is to try to be proactive and I have to make a recommendation to Dr. Kimbrell,” Anthony said. “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.”
Anthony said that the district also has been authorized to implement the reduction-in-force policy for district employees if the superintendent decides it is needed.
“If we do not have enough retirements and resignations to meet the staff numbers we need, then we will have to move to the RIF policy,” Anthony said.
After he had concluded his presentation Anthony opened the floor to questions from the audience.
“Apparently the decision has been made on the reduction-in-force policy and the closing of this school,” former Dollarway School Board member Efrem Elliott said. “What can be done for the staff here?”
Anthony replied that the reduction-in-force policy would applied on a district-wide basis and that teachers with long tenures are relatively safe.
“Reduction in force is not driven by campuses,” Anthony said. “I want people to be treated fairly. It is pretty much a senior staff here at Martin and the policy is driven first by tenure and second by number of subject certifications. So the longer a teacher has been here and the more subjects they are able to teach the more likely it is that they will not have to worry about the RIF policy.”
Altheimer resident and substitute teacher Lizzie Rasberry gave an impassioned plea for a last-chance solution.
“It’s going to be so hard for these little kids to have that bus ride to Pine Bluff and back every day,” Rasberry said. “Altheimer-Martin is one of the best schools in the state. I tell you going to Pine Bluff is like going to prison. These kids are living here and they should be able to go to school here. Everybody talk to the people about bringing their kids back here.”
Anthony thanked Rasberry for her comments and agreed that it was a difficult situation.
Elliott asked if any thought has been given as to what should be done with the existing school building.
“Hopefully it could be used as a youth facility,” Elliott said.
Anthony said that some preliminary discussions have been held but that nothing has yet been decided.
Some of the questions focused on student safety.
“Did you think about our kids having to cross the bridge over the Arkansas River during bad weather?” one woman asked.
“We did,” Anthony said.
“If kids get sick over there are you going to bring them back home?” a man asked.
“I’m not too proud to do that but I believe there is a parental responsibility here, too,” Anthony said.
“I appreciate you candidness and I feel your concerns,” Anthony said at the conclusion of the forum.