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Board OK’s controversial school changes

The Letcher County Board of Education has voted to close the Beckham Bates Elementary School at Colson, to turn Martha Jane Potter Elementary School at Kona into a kindergarten through Grade 5 facility only, and to change Fleming-Neon Elementary School into a middle school for students in grades 6 through 8. The board also voted to transition Beckham Bates students to Letcher Elementary School and to restructure the Letcher campus into a kindergarten through Grade 5 facility and a middle school.

The changes were approved Monday night at the board’s December meeting and will take effect at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year. Spared by any changes are Arlie Boggs Elementary School at Eolia and Cowan Elementary School, which will remain kindergarten through Grade 8 facilities.

Letcher Schools Supt. Anna Craft made the recommendations Dec. 19 after the board had asked Craft several months ago to look into the possibility of implementing recommendations included in a district facilities plan, which was approved by the board in June.

“I tried to think about what parts of the plan could we do that would be implemented smoothly between now and next school year,” said Craft. “I don’t think all of it is necessary to do at one time.”

The closing of Beckham Bates was approved by the board by a vote of 3-2, with board members Terry Cornett of Linefork and Dr. Sam Quillen Jr. of Neon voting no.

Cornett said Kingdom Come Elementary School at Gordon and Campbell’s Branch at Hallie have both been closed during his tenure.

“Since those schools have closed it has been devastating to the communities and the students,” said Cornett. “I support change when it is needed.”

Yes votes were cast by Board Chairman William Smith of Whitesburg and members Mike Harris of Cowan and John Spicer of Seco.

Harris said his decision was based on what he believes is best for students as a whole.

About eight people addressed the board and asked members to keep Beckham Bates open.

Steve Banks, a former Letcher County sheriff and magistrate, has spent the last nine years working as a special education teacher at Beckham Bates.

“The greatest adventure I have ever had is getting to be a part of Beckham Bates,” said Banks.

Jennifer Hatfield has three small children who attend Beckham Bates. She is concerned about her children riding on buses for extended amounts of time as well as how her children will succeed at a larger school.

“They are going to be pushed under a rug at these big schools,” said Hatfield.

“Please don’t close our school,” pleaded Beckham Bates student Nikole Lee. “ We love it like a home.”

Craft said the biggest concern at Beckham Bates is the “transitional” status and condition of the building. In 1996, a district facilities committee designated Beckham Bates as a transitional school, meaning the 21,050-square-foot facility, which was built in 1961, has lost its value and students should transition to another school and that facility should be closed.

“It is not the condition of the community,” said Craft. “It is not the condition of the staff. It’s a great staff.”

The Kentucky Department of Education will not allocate money to renovate a transitional school.

“That’s a hard fact,” said Craft. “That is reality. Everyone dances around it.”

Cornett cast the only no vote on the changes at Martha Jane Potter and Fleming-Neon.

Cornett said the majority of the people he spoke with are overwhelmingly against the idea of separating elementary and middle school students into different schools.

The meeting drew a crowd of about 200, including the staffs of the Beckham Bates and Arlie Boggs schools, and had to be moved from the school bus garage to the West Whitesburg Elementary School cafeteria for space purposes. Members of the Eolia community had been afraid the changes, which are a result of the board’s recently completed reconfiguration study, would affect their school as well.

“Any recommendation or any suggestion for consideration by a board is based on economics,” said Craft. “It’s based on academics that we want to continue with good academics in this county. We want to try to continue to have good support programs.”

At last month’s meeting the board voted to require schools to begin enforcing attendance boundary lines already on the books, but to permit students already enrolled in schools outside their district to remain there. Harrison Boggs has two grandchildren who live in the Cowan district but attend West Whitesburg Elementary School. He wants his two younger grandchildren to be able to join them at WWES.

Boggs asked the board Monday night to make a motion to grandfather in the entire family, not just those already in school.

“We have two things going on at both schools, which one am I supposed to go to,” asked Boggs.

Will Smith said the board made its decision at the last meeting.

“I would rather not vote on it tonight,” said Smith.

Mike Harris said the board needs to look at the effects of that decision before anything is decided.

Regina Brown, president of the Letcher County Teacher Organization, urged parents to contact legislators and ask them not to cut funding. It was announced Dec. 16 that $351,000 will be cut in SEEK funding (Support Educational Excellence in Kentucky) allocated to the Letcher County school district for this school year. Gary Caldwell, district finance officer, said the cuts amount to $120.69 per child in average daily attendance. Caldwell said the district is looking at a shortfall of $500,000 next school year.

“Every year there is less money to divide up and use in the school system,” said Brown. “These decisions are going to become increasingly harder with more funding cuts.”

Craft said all school districts in Kentucky and across this nation are trying to deal with economic challenges.

In other business, Chris Russell, project manager of the Letcher County Area Technology Center, said classrooms are substantially complete.

“We are basically in our finished stage,” said Russell.

The pedway is to be installed in January and instructors could possible begin moving into their new classrooms by the second week of February, said Russell.

The board also:

• named James McAuley, a teacher at Fleming-Neon Elementary School, as the district’s employee of the month.

• continued one-year leases for Winston Burton at Arlie Boggs Elementary School and Bob Smith at West Whitesburg Elementary School to provide security at the sites and rent the mobile homes located near the schools. Payment is $75 each month for site rental, but each will receive a $50 credit for security services.

• learned of the certified resignations of Brenda Mullins, a district-wide substitute teacher, and Jonathan Mullins, a districtwide special education teacher.

• learned of the resignations of Charles McBee, a bus driver at Beckham Bates; Darrell McBee, a bus driver at Fleming-Neon; Jesse McBee, a district-wide substitute custodian; Brenda Mullins, a district-wide substitute instructional assistant and bus monitor; Jonathan Mullins, a district-wide substitute bus driver and Mark Napier, a district-wide substitute custodian.

The next board meeting is set for 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 23 in the Letcher County School Bus Garage.

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