ROGERSVILLE — Tammy Lyons is among the parents who have been fighting to keep Keplar Elementary School open for years, but she's afraid that the removal of the fourth and fifth grades may be the final nail in the coffin for the rural Hawkins County School.
On Thursday, the Hawkins County Board of Education voted 5-1 to begin busing Keplar's 38 fourth- and fifth-graders to Hawkins Elementary in Rogersville.
Keplar is only 7 miles away from Rogersville, but it covers a huge area of south central Hawkins County all the way to the Sullivan County line.
Lyons found out Friday that her daughter, who is in fifth grade, will now be attending HES.
But Lyons has a lot of questions about how this decision came about. Unfortunately for her and other parents of affected children, there was no opportunity to ask questions or voice their opinion prior to Thursday's vote.
The agenda posted on the school system website for Thursday’s meeting didn’t mention Keplar. The agenda item where the Keplar decision was made was listed simply under reports as “Matt Hixson” (the director of schools).
The revised agenda that was handed out prior to Thursday's meeting listed that agenda item as “Matt Hixson — Class collapse/closure.”
“I didn't think I had anything to worry about because the word on the street last month was that they were going to discuss closing the schools in August, so I was prepared to go in August,” Lyons said. “It is the middle of the summer, and not to be a conspiracy theorist, but they pull this stuff when they know nobody is going to be around — in the middle of the summer when all of the families are away and people are traveling. They should be ashamed of themselves for doing this to us. It's not fair to be blindsided with this right now.”
Lyons added, “This is just a ploy to close the school like they've wanted to do for the past five years. One of the reasons cited for closing schools is a decrease in enrollment. Well, they just gave us a huge decrease in enrollment. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
On Thursday, Hixson told the BOE that Keplar's fourth- and fifth-grade teachers had retired. He clarified for the Times-News on Monday, however, that one teacher transferred to home-bound education, and one resigned to stay home with family.
Hixson's recommendation was to leave those two Keplar teaching positions vacant as a cost-savings measure. That savings would partly offset the 2 cents of property tax revenue, or about $175,000, that the county commission has proposed to withhold this fiscal year.
As a result, 15 fourth-graders and 23 fifth-graders from Keplar would be bused to Hawkins Elementary, leaving Keplar a K-3 school with an enrollment of about 50.
The plan was approved 5-1 with only board member Tecky Hicks voting against it.
On Monday, Hixson issued a press release stating that the change was prompted by a need to identify savings due to a reduction of tax revenues.
“The plan will effectively save the school system nearly $120,000 in salaries and benefits and helps deal with the overall low student enrollment at KES,” Hixson said. “Due to this low enrollment, nearly all salaries at KES are locally funded and fall outside the state's Basic Education Program (BEP) funding formula. However, prior to making any concrete decision regarding this movement of students, Matt Hixson, Director of Schools, and Sandy Williams, principal at KES, will hold a parent input meeting this Thursday, July 18, at 4:30 p.m. at Keplar. The purpose of the meeting will be to discuss viable options for meeting the financial constraints the school system is facing.”
Kepler Elementary is located at 1914 Burem Road, about 7 miles southeast of Rogersville.
Lyons said she believe the BOE is putting dollar signs ahead of what’s in the best interest of students at Keplar.
“This is not to help the students,” Lyons said. “This is not for the performance of the students. This is not to improve their education or their environment. This is a financially motivated thing.”
Lyons added, “It's the nail in the coffin for our school. To treat it like any other budgetary item is shameful. But, in my opinion, they did it that way intentionally because they're trying to backdoor us and railroad us out of our school.”