School closures hit a community

Altheimer-Martin Elementary School will be recommended for closure on June 30 because of a falling enrollment. It is the third public school in Jefferson County set to close at the end of the current school year.

Like residents of Altheimer, patrons of the Redfield Middle School have taken their proposed closing seriously. Simply put, a school closure impacts any community.

The former Altheimer district included students from Altheimer, Wabbaseka, Sherrill, Tucker, Pastoria, Wright and the Plum Bayou communities. Readers of a certain age will recall how these names changed and disappeared over the years as one after another small southeast Arkansas community lost population, was unable to support a school district and was then consolidated into another district.

Consequently, the recommendation of Dollarway School District Superintendent Frank Anthony to close the Altheimer school should not come as a surprise. Closure was mentioned numerous times by the former Dollarway School Board before the state took over the district and dismissed the board for its failure to operate the district in an acceptable manner.

The subject was also raised reluctantly by the former Altheimer School Board before the district’s merger with Dollarway. The high school and junior high at Altheimer have been closed for a number of years.

Anthony met with a large group of school staff, parents, students and supporters Tuesday during an open forum held at the school. The subject was the district’s deteriorating financial condition. Anthony will make his recommendation that the school be closed to state education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell.

As superintendent in the Pine Bluff School District, Anthony oversaw the closure of eight schools. “It was not pleasant but it had to be done to keep the district solvent,” he explained to the audience.

He was blunt, but candid. That’s his style.

“We are looking at economies of scale here,” Anthony told Altheimer residents. “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.”

Economy of scale was also ignored when the Dollarway board continued to operate two bus mechanic shops — one in Pine Bluff and a smaller one at Altheimer — after the districts merged. The latter was responsible for four school buses that come out of Altheimer each school day to transport Altheimer area students to and from campuses in Pine Bluff.

Then Dollarway director Gene Stewart questioned if that was the best use of district resources to maintain duplicate facilities. However, Board President George Stepps replied it made sense to keep things unchanged.

In the 2009-10 school year, the Dollarway 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.

If the current rate of spending continues, the district will be insolvent at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Each enrolled child represents $6,267 in state revenue to the school district. Two years ago Altheimer-Martin had 119 students and as of April 5 it had 78 students. The math is simple: $488,826 in revenue with projected expenses for the upcoming school year for the school of $1.2 million.

Altheimer-Martin, Dollarway High School and Robert Morehead Middle School are among three priority schools in the Dollarway district that are among the 50 lowest performing Arkansas schools.

“What can be done for the staff here?” former Dollarway School Board member Efrem Elliott asked Anthony. The reduction-in-force policy will be driven by tenure and number of subject certifications district-wide, was the response.

Schools are a focus point of a community and often one of the larger employees in a town. No one wants to put their children on a yellow bus for a long ride each morning and afternoon that involves crossing the Arkansas River.

The decision, although unavoidable, is not an easy one.