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Hawkins BOE to crunch numbers before deciding if small schools must be closed

Jeff Bobo • Nov 21, 2015 at 9:00 AM

ROGERSVILLE — Earlier this year, Hawkins County was celebrating McPheeters Bend Elementary School for being among the top schools in Tennessee for student academic growth three years in a row.

Due to impending renovation costs estimated as high as a half million, however, next year the Board of Education may be faced with the prospect of closing MBE, which serves 82 students 2.5 miles south of Church Hill.

The same fate may await Keplar Elementary, which serves 100 students eight miles south of Rogersville and has more than $800,000 worth of renovations which must be completed in 3-5 years.

On the 2014-15 state report card, Keplar Elementary scored two A’s and a B in academic achievement and two B’s and an A in the “value added” category, which measures growth over a three-year period.

On its 2014-15 state report card, MBE scored all B’s in academic achievement and all A’s in value added.

Undoubtedly the small classroom atmosphere is working for students at both schools. But, it comes at a higher cost per pupil.

Not counting the K-12 Clinch School, which is in a category of its own due to location, MBE and Keplar are the two smallest schools in Hawkins County.

Their combined populations don’t add up to the next smallest school, St. Clair Elementary, which has about 190 students.

Thursday evening the BOE’s Buildings Committee received a “must do” list of renovations needed at both schools.

Combined, the two-year-old cost estimates exceeded $1.2 million, although board members expressed concern that by the time the projects were prepared for bids, the cost might be closer to $1.5 million.

Keplar, which was built in 1950 and expanded in 1960, needs a new roof ($215,000); a kitchen and dining room floor ($173,000); a new wastewater treatment plant ($161,000); restroom upgrades ($86,000); paving ($70,000); water and sewer piping ($67,500); and a secured entrance ($61,932).

MBE, which was built in 1961, needs a cafeteria and kitchen ($42,500); a gym roof ($44,000); water and sewer lines ($65,000); a cafeteria serving line and new dining floor ($22,000); paving ($48,000); bleachers ($45,000); and a secured entrance ($145,560).

Some Hawkins County commissioners have stated publicly they wouldn’t support either school being closed due to the high academic performance at both facilities.

On Thursday, however, school board member Bob Larkins said fiscal realities may leave the BOE with no other choice.

“At some point in time we’re going to have to look at the reality of whether we can keep the smaller schools open,” Larkins told the committee. “Can we afford it? And is (the county commission) willing to put out a million dollars for one school and a half million dollars on another school — funds that we currently don’t have. Those are some questions that are going to be very tough to answer.”

Larkins added, “I see a lot of our sister counties having to make the same decisions because it’s just not practical to keep a small school open anymore when we can consolidate services and resources.”

Director of Schools Steve Starnes said Keplar and MBE have everything that other students have. But it comes at a much higher cost per student when it’s in a small rural school, Starnes added.

Larkins asked Starnes if his staff could compile cost figures showing how much it costs to operate Keplar and MBE per student compared to other schools in the system and how much could be saved if both schools were closed.

Larkins said he’d also like to hear input from the community and the county commissioners who represent the area served by those schools.

The BOE will be discussing strategic planning in January, and board member Holly Helton suggested that would be the time for the future of MBE and Keplar to be discussed again.

One point raised by Larkins was the fact that the number of schools is always declining as the costs continue to rise.

In 1934, there were 126 schools in Hawkins County. In 1960, the number was down to 100.

Today the Hawkins County system has 19 schools including the alternative school.

“I like the idea of community schools, and I like the smaller classrooms, but can we afford to go down that road in today’s environment?” Larkins asked.

Several county commissioners were in the audience for Thursday’s BOE Building Committee meeting, but only Commissioner Charlie Newton stated an opinion during the meeting.

“There’s going to come a time you’re going to have to close McPheeters Bend, close Keplar, and take the heat and go on,” Newton said.

The committee agreed to meet again July 14 to review the numbers compiled by Starnes.

Board chairman Chris Christian said he’d like to know how the County Commission feels about this issue and if the commission is willing to provide funding to keep both schools open.

“We’ve got to look at what’s best for the entire county,” Christian said. “We’ve got to look at what’s best for the taxpayers of this county. We’ve got to think about what’s best for our students as a whole.”                        

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