The Letcher County Board of Education voted this week to start enforcing district boundaries when determining where students may attend school.
By a vote of 4-1, the board on Monday night approved a recommendation by Supt. Anna Craft 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.
“It’s trying to get our schools so we have the right number of students in every school,” Craft told the board at its November meeting. “If everybody all of a sudden wants to go to one particular school and everybody goes there and the others are too small, that school is overloaded. And the others are sitting there with not enough students.”
Craft said state law already requires school districts to set attendance boundaries, advertise them and enforcing them.
“That’s what we need to be doing,” she said. “Somewhere way back they let it get lax and now it has culminated with some schools that are overcrowded.”
Board member Terry Cornett cast the only vote against the recommendation, but did not discuss why he was opposed to it.
Craft explained that students already attending a school outside their district “can finish at that school if they so choose and be grandfathered in. No child would have to go to a different school.”
Goldie Kalahan, who has daughter goes to preschool at Whitesburg but lives in Cowan district, asked if the grandfathering policy applies to preschool students.
“I hadn’t really thought about that,” said Craft. “I’ll look at that. We couldn’t allow it to go over cap. ”
Monday’s meeting was attended by a large number of parents who continue to be interested in a pending study on the question of whether the board should change the structure of its elementary and middle schools to help cut operating costs. Some of those parents told the board they have at least one child already attending a school out of district, and are concerned about their toddlers who won’t be able to attend the same school as their older siblings.
“If they are already there I think the younger sibling should have an opportunity to choose,” said Paul Stevens of Letcher, who transports his child to Arlie Boggs Elementary School at Eolia. “Some of these schools in this county have such a problem with bullying, and if you don’t have a sibling with you there to help you, you might get into a lot of trouble.”
Billy Stamper lives at Van and works in Jenkins. He has one child who attends Martha Jane Potter Elementary School at Kona. His toddler would be required to attend Letcher Elementary School, which is located in the opposite direction of his workplace.
“ Looking at the numbers I don’t think any school is going to be overcapped,” said Stamper. “If a school isn’t overcapped, a student should be able to attend.”
Stamper also said he has concerns about whether the policy would be enforced fairly.
“ I would ask that it be enforced across the board and not some here and some there,” said Stamper. “If you are going to do it there can’t be any exceptions.”
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.
“I’m here to fight for my kids because they are 6 and 7, 2 and 3 or 4 year old (and aren’t) big enough to come up here and fight for themselves,” said Boggs. “If I didn’t do it then I wouldn’t be a man.”
Boggs asked the board members what he is supposed to say to his grandsons when they find out they can’t attend the same school as their brothers.
“I don’t have an answer,” said Cornett.
“Tell them that is the way it is,” said Board Chairman Will Smith.
Board Member John Spicer said his daughter lives in Madison County within 200 yards of a middle school and is required to transport her son to a school that is about two miles away.
“You are never going to be able to satisfy everybody,” said Spicer. “I don’t care what you do. If we are sitting here saying we are going to satisfy every parent in Letcher County it is not going to happen. It can’t happen because somewhere along the way we have to make boundaries to what we are doing. It may not suit some people.”
Craft said she doesn’t know when the district began turning a blind eye to students attending schools out of their boundary lines.
“ It never should have gotten this far out of line,” she said. “( We’ve) got some wonderful schools and facilities that don’t have enough students in them and others are overcrowded.”
When asked by an audience member if she would send her children to different schools, Craft said, “If that was the law I would abide by it.”
“I think I am more biased,” said Craft. “I think all schools are great in the county.”
Smith said about 100 students from outside the boundary attend West Whitesburg Elementary, while about 75 attend Martha Jane Potter and another 75 attend Cowan.
“We have to start looking at boundaries,” said Smith. “If we don’t look at boundaries we are going to start looking at closing more and more schools. Lord knows I don’t want to get into closing schools.”
Isom resident Crystal Adams asked the board to look into why parents send their children to other schools.
“Why do parents want to take children to other schools?” asked Adams. “Why are they willing to take time out of their day and gas money to take them to other schools? Because they think they are getting a better education. They are getting better opportunities.”
Board Member Mike Harris asked why all students don’t go to the same school if that school one school is supposed to be the best in the county.
“ I think every one of our schools has a lot to offer,” said Harris. “I don’t know what a parent’s decision-making process is of why they want to go outside the district.”
In a related issue, Craft said the board has been presented with a packet of questions, concerns and minutes of meetings held so far from the seven teams made up of parents, teachers, school administrators, board members and community members are considering whether elementary students should begin attending classes in separate schools from middle school students.
The reports lists recommendations and concerns about transportation, curriculum, facilities, and teacher staffing and is available at www.letcher.k12.ky.us/
The board will look over the reports and will make a decision on how to move forward at its Dec. 19 meeting.
“We have had enough of this,” said Smith. “The decision will be made in December.”
Some parents are worried the board will vote to close the Arlie Boggs School and the Beckham Bates Elementary School at Colson. Letcher resident April Stevens asked board members to visit students at Eolia and Colson before making their decision.
“Those are the children you need to worry about right now,” said Stevens. “See what they are doing. Spend a little time with them. Ask them what they think and what they want. Spend a full day or two with the students before you make a decision.”
In response to a question of openness by Isom resident Michael Wright, Board Chairman Smith said the process of determining whether school changes should be made has been done in public and will continue to be.
“This has been the most open process that you will ever go through,” said Smith. “You know everything we know. No decisions have been made. We have monthly school board meetings and everyone is invited to our meetings. Everyone is welcome.”
Letcher County Magistrate Bobby Ray Howard, who represents District One, told the board he sides with the parents who are against separating the elementary and middle schools.
“I believe they are right and I am 100 percent behind them,” Howard said. “Nobody can do more right for kids than a parent.”
Earlier in the meeting, Pam Anderson, whose granddaughter lives in the Cowan district and attends West Whitesburg, asked board members if they speak for their constituents or if they vote without consulting the people they represent.
“How did you see your being elected, that you were a spokesperson for the masses or they gave you their proxy to make your own decision about how you felt about things?” asked Anderson.
“It’s a simple answer for me,” replied Board Member Spicer. “I’m going to do what is best for the students in this county. What you say, what anyone else says is not going to sway my vote. What this committee has done with the information that we have, as soon as I digest that, if it is better for the students that is what I am going to do. It may not suit you; it may not suit the parents, but I am looking at the future of the children of this county. Point blank. That is number one.”
Board member Dr. Sam Quillen said he also listens to constituents but votes for what he believes is best for children.
“I listen to my constituents,” said Quillen. “I talk to them. I see them at ballgames, plays and athletic events, church, on the street, Walmart. I talk to them all the time. I listen to what they have to say. You might be surprised what most of them have said to me about this issue.”
Quillen said he too will study the information provided to board members by the various committees charged with looking into the matter.
“This has been a dynamite issue,” said Anderson.
“You should be in our shoes,” replied Quillen. “ You assume things sometimes that you shouldn’t. You would be surprised how many people who talk to us.”
Cornett said he listens to the advice given to him by his constituents and also listens to students.
“I listen to kids,” said Cornett. “I attend a lot of ballgames, a lot of functions. I listen to their concerns. I try to do what is right for all of the kids, not just one part of the county. I try to make decisions that will positively affect them and their children. They are taxpayers and they deserve to get their money’s worth.”
Board member Mike Harris said the people in his district elected him to represent them.
“Yet when there are decisions on serious items you get the phone calls and you talk to them,” said Harris. “I can tell you right now I bet these magistrates (Howard and Adams) don’t call 3,500 people when they make a decision. We make 25 to 40 decisions every board meeting.”
Harris said he believes those who voted for him have enough confidence in him to make the right decisions.
“I think if you ponder over them, pray over them, most of the time you will make the right decision,” said Harris. “At the end of the day, as several members have said, you have to make decisions that are right for the whole.”