Letcher County Schools will merge Letcher Elementary and Letcher Middle into a single school this fall.
Superintendent Denise Yonts told the board of education on Monday night that a search for a new principal is already underway.
“Hopefully, by the end of the week we’ll have a principal for the new school,” Yonts said.
The “new school” will not include a new building. It will be located in the existing buildings on the Letcher Elementary and Middle campus about halfway between Jeremiah and Blackey.
Falling enrollment led to the change. Letcher will now be one of two K-8 schools in the district. Arlie Boggs Elementary at Eolia is the other.
Letcher Elementary Principal Rocky Craft and Letcher Middle School Principal Ricky Warf have both retired as of the end of this school year. The change to a single school will mean only one principal will be hired to run the school.
Letcher started off as single building serving students in grades 1-12. A gymnasium was built in 1974, and the campus replaced temporary classrooms with a new high school wing in the 1980s. The high school closed in 2005 when it was consolidated with Fleming-Neon and Whitesburg High Schools to make up the new Letcher County Central High School at Whitesburg. The middle grades were moved into the high school building, with the elementary school taking over the old high school wing and elementary wing of the original building. Each school had its own principal for several years, but with the retirement of both in the same year, the district will replace them with a single principal for the entire campus.
The district was interviewing principal candidates for the newly consolidated K-8 school on Tuesday.
Also at the board meeting Monday night, the district approved its tentative budget for next year, which totals more than $28.8 million, up slightly from last year despite lower local and mineral tax receipts.
Josh Yonts, district finance director, said the unmined mineral taxes, which at one time provided about $800,000 to the budget, provided only a little over $20,000 this year, and are expected to be a little more than $900 for the next year. Local property taxes, were budgeted for $3 million last year, but just $2.3 million was collected. Meanwhile, utility costs alone have increased by $200,000. Cyber insurance premiums have increased because of the frequency of online terrorism, building insurance is up because of the runaway cost of building supplies, liability insurance is up because of a 500 percent increase in sexual harassment and abuse claims nationwide, and workers’ compensation is up because of a 17-percent increase in claims.
Yonts told the board that it could still change where the money in the budget goes, but it is past the point of changing how much it receives.
“That total amount of money is what you’ve got,” he said.
Yonts told the board that a 1 percent raise for employees would cost about $180,000, and that amount could be added for each additional percentage point it increases wages.
Letcher County Extra Services Personnel Organization outgoing president Nancy Ratliff, who announced her retirement to the board earlier in the meeting, asked the board to give classified employees a 5 percent raise, and suggested the board members go on the record at the meeting on whether they were for or against it.
Board members said that while they respect the work done by classified employees, they could not say what size raise they support until they study the budget.
“If we jump in and give too big a raise and bankrupt the district, have we really done the employees a service?” Board Member Robert Kiser asked.
Board member Shawn Gilley, who has been a vocal advocate for higher pay for classified employees, said he couldn’t make a commitment until he looks more closely at the budget.
“If we conservatively jump in and give a 1 percent raise, we may look and see we could have given a 2 percent raise,” he said. “I want to be able to give as much as we can to all our employees.”
While Ratliff said employees don’t feel valued or respected by the board, Superintendent Yonts said she is proud of the employees and they have done an exceptional job during the pandemic.
“They have gone above and beyond this year,” she said.
The board approved the tentative budget without addressing the pay raise issue. School district budgets go through several stages before being finalized, and the tentative budget is not the final document.
Also at the meeting, the board voted to take advantage of a state law passed during the last session that allows students to retake the last school year without penalty in order to improve grades impacted by the pandemic. Superintendent Yonts said many students have said they are interested. For seniors, that means they will be considered graduated students, but for others, it will push their graduation date back one year. She said that will affect the district’s graduation rate, but not by enough to put the district into a category of needing improvement.
Ronnie Goins, director of instruction, said that students have also taken advantage of summer camps and summer school offered by the district to get back on track. More than 140 students, ages pre-school through twelfth grade, have signed up for either Session 1 or 2 of summer camp, with 65 elementary students a day attending at West Whitesburg. Twelve to 15 per day attend camp for middle and high school students.
The camps, paid for by COVID-19 relief money, have an academic component, but focus on social and emotional learning to reacclimate students who have been participating in virtual learning for the past year. The camps have included hiking trips, cooking, art, and work with drones, cameras, and virtual reality gaming.
The first session ends June 2, and the second begins June 7.
In addition to camps, 49 middle schoolers and 100 high school students attended summer school to improve grades.