By Patrick Massey
De Queen Bee
In what its members have called a “heartbreaking” decision, the De Queen School Board voted Monday night to cease all activities on the Lockesburg Elementary campus at the end of the current school year.
Four board members voted during their regular meeting on Feb. 10 to close the campus and merge Lockesburg’s K-6 classes with the respective schools in De Queen. Board member Skip Bell, a resident of Lockesburg, abstained during the vote.
Discussion on the viability of Lockesburg Elementary has been going on for years, the board said, and the decision to close the campus come only after much consideration.
The board said a combination of factors, including low enrollment numbers and poor finances, forced the district to close the campus.
“Ultimately it’s about numbers,” said Board President Randy Hedge. “We don’t have the number of kids needed to support that campus. When the formula schools are funded by is based on the number of kids you have, [enrollment] is a critical factor.”
For the last few years enrollment in Lockesburg’s K-6 classes has fluctuated between the mid-70s and low-80s – an enrollment decrease of over 50 percent since the closure of Lockesburg High School in 2009. That year the elementary school served over 180 children, but many families moved off or sent their children to other school districts after the high school closure.
“If Lockesburg still had 184 kids, we wouldn’t be talking about this,” said De Queen Superintendent Bruce Hill, who added that a district study determined Lockesburg Elementary would need an enrollment of 120-150 students to remain viable.
“Unfortunately, we had a huge drop in enrollment and there have been no signs in the last few years that it would go up,” Hill added. “Right now, the attendance isn’t even paying the salaries over there.”
District officials said the campus runs at an annual budget deficit of approximately $400,000. Despite personnel cuts to the district’s administrative staff and other budget reductions, the school said it cannot continue to afford operating the Lockesburg campus.
“We haven’t given bonuses the last few years, we’ve cut back our administrative personnel to just three people and we’re trying to make cuts and save money wherever we can,” said Hedge. “This was a heartbreaking decision for us to make, but if you look at the facts unemotionally – the finances and the enrollment numbers – this is something we had to do.”
In a time when small schools across the state are facing financial insolvency and consolidation, De Queen School officials said the 2006 merger of Lockesburg with the De Queen School District helped keep the campus’ doors open.
“The board feels that we were able to preserve Lockesburg Elementary six of seven years longer than it might have had we not merged,” said Hedge. “The board has had every intention of keeping the campus open, but the time has come we can’t justify the costs.”
Although Lockesburg residents have seen new opportunities come to town in recent years – including a new Dollar General Store and a possible UA Cossatot extension site – city leaders know the closure will hit the community hard.
“I hate it for my town,” said Lockesburg Mayor Danny Ruth. “We were hoping the school could keep its numbers and it could stay here to help attract more people to Lockesburg.”
Ruth said he fears the school closure will force many people, and new businesses, to hesitate before moving to Lockesburg.
“It’s going to be very hard to attract anything new if you don’t have a place in town for children to go to school,” he said. Ruth hopes he will be able to work with school leaders to make the building available for potential business prospects in the future, if any arrive.
Ruth said that although Lockesburg residents will mourn the loss of their elementary school, he asks the community not to blame the De Queen School District.
“They did their part and they did everything they said they would do to try and keep the school open,” he said.
“We can’t blame the school board for this. A lot of this was on Lockesburg; in the past the town should have tried to do more to keep people here.”
District officials said buses will be made available for any Lockesburg student attending De Queen schools in the next school year. Approximately 20 teachers and staff work at Lockesburg Elementary, and all will be offered a position in De Queen.
“Everyone of them has a job here,” said Hill.