By John Balch
Faced with future financial issues and the need to make several costly improvements to the Murfreesboro campus, the South Pike County School Board will begin closely reviewing whether the Delight Elementary School should be closed.
The decision to begin analyzing the Delight campus was reached after a financial report last Tuesday night from Superintendent Roger Featherston. The report projects the district will end the 2013-2014 school year with approximately $49,707 less in the operating fund than the previous school year. Although the projected balance was described as “low” and “conservative,” it will constitute a declining ending balance.
When a school district has three consecutive years of declining ending balances, the Arkansas Department of Education places the district on a fiscal distress list. If the financial issues are not resolved, the status can result in a state-takeover.
The financial report also included a list of projects needed on the Murfreesboro campus. The projects include a new roof and replacing the heating and air units at the high school and the need for 1-to-1 technology upgrades campus wide.
Also listed as a “huge project” would be the remodeling and expanding the Murfreesboro gymnasium or building a new one. “Either way, we would have a facility capable of holding graduation, etc. At the very least, we need to replace the bleachers, lighting and possibly add air conditioning,” said Featherston.
The report also shows the district is projecting a $90,000 increase in the building fund and currently has $1,550,167 CD in the bank. But, Featherston said “without changes” the district will continue to struggle financially and a “tough decision” needs to be considered.
“That decision is whether or not to close the Delight campus,” he said.
Closing the Delight Elementary School would cut operation costs by at least $250,000 per year, according to Featherson. There are currently 110 students enrolled at the Delight elementary, grades K-6. How many students would be lost in the event of closure is unknown. Featherston and High School Principal Kathaleen Cole guessed a loss of up to 10 students could be possible.
Featherston also said he did not think a school should be operated solely on business terms, but “this must be considered before it is too late.”
“I believe we have ‘put off the inevitable,’ but each year we continue to do this puts us in weaker financial condition for the future.”
Featherston was not proposing the board make a decision that night, “I’m just saying we need to have our eyes open.” If the board does decide to close the campus, he suggested the campus remain open throughout the next year to “allow time for planning and preparation.”
“And not do it ‘bam’ like it did with the high school,” he added.
The agreement that formed the South Pike County School District when Murfreesboro annexed the Delight district stated the new district “shall use its best efforts to allow the Delight School campus to continue to operate both an elementary and high school system in the SPCSD as long as deemed economically and educationally feasible and beneficial to the SPCSD as a whole as determined by the school board on a periodic review.”
“There are definitely reasons to keep it open and there are definitely things we’ve got to look at and consider what we are going to do there,” said Featherston.
The Delight High School was closed the school year after the 2010 annexation. The decision to close the high school was hastened when approximately 60 students left for the Blevins School District one month prior to the merger and a financial report showed Delight’s finances that school year had been spent down from $525,000 to $97,600.
Featherston said he planned to have a Dawson Educational Cooperative official and a former ADE fiscal distress team member now working at a public school resource center to both help analyze the information and numbers related to the operation of the Delight campus.
“I want people who have knowledge of finances, and – just on our level – don’t have a dog in the fight,” he said.
Board member Steve Conly voiced his concern about who should be used for outside consultation. “They don’t have a dog in the fight, Roger, but they don’t care. I guarantee what information you’re going to get from those people over there, I know exactly what they are going to tell you because they don’t like small schools, and they like consolidation.”
Another concern for Conly is what will happen to the town of Delight. “Once you close (schools) down, things just start to fade away,” he said.
Conly also suggested the district open dialogue with the Kirby School District about a possible future merger. “They’re going somewhere,” he said. “Let’s at least approach them and see what their intentions are.”
Board member Ricky Buck agreed that Kirby should be approached and Board President Alan Walls added, “I don’t think it will hurt a thing to reach out to our neighbors and say ‘hey don’t forget about us.’”
“I do not want any school to close, and I’m pretty passionate about it,” continued Conly, who is a major proponent of advancing the district’s technology capabilities. “But I do not want to be in fiscal distress either. That to me is a failure pointed towards us.”
“Been down that road before,” added Walls.
It has not been that long since the former Murfreesboro School District was on the ADE’s fiscal distress list. The district received the status July 1, 2008 after three consecutive years of a declining legal balance in the operating budget.
Voters approved a 7.6-mill increase in 2009, which along with tightened financial management, resulted in removal from the list in 2010. The increased tax rate raised the district’s rate to 44 mills, at the time the highest rate of Pike County’s then-four school districts. The new tax funds were not realized until the fall of 2010.
As part of the process of Murfreesboro annexing the Delight district to form the South Pike County district, the board was required to reach an unified millage rate. Acting against the advice of a financial consultant and a suggestion from Superintendent Featherston, the board voted in a split 4-2 vote to levy a 41-mill unified tax rate.
Kirby superintendent’s statement
Kirby Superintendent Jeff Alexander was contacted by The Nashville Leader Monday morning and issued the following statement.
“The Kirby School enrollment is currently at 344 students. We will not finish the year above 350. We still have another year to get to 350. The Kirby School District is in great financial shape. Our main concern is getting our enrollment up to 350.
“We are having a town meeting April 10 at 6:30 to discuss our enrollment situation and work toward possible solutions. I am planning on meeting with Mr. Featherston this week just to look at all aspects of our situation. Kirby Schools plans on remaining open.”