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Delight Elementary survives another year

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By P.J. Tracy

Murfreesboro Diamond

With controversy swirling around the issue, the South Pike County School Board elected for a form of compromise in voting to close the Delight Elementary School following the 2020-2021 school year.

The decision was made at a specially called meeting Tuesday, April 28.

SPC Superintendent Brad Sullivan had two weeks previous recommended that the board vote to close the school effective immediately.

Before internal discussion and voting, the board heard from 13 local residents via web chat for their views of the situation. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic regulations limiting groups of less than t10, the board chose to utilize this measure to allow interested participants to voice their opinions.

More than 100 residents also watched the proceedings online as the meeting took place in the mostly seamless use of technology. Speakers were given an allotment of approximately three minutes each and were admonished not to speak of personnel matters.

Delight resident Carrie Tidwell was the first to have her say, stating that she understood it was a “realistic” year-by-year question, but that Delight teachers were told that Delight Elementary was “good” for another year. She added that the closing of the school would be “unnecessary and unexpected as funds are in place for another program year.”

Like most of the speakers against the closing of the Delight campus, she asked if the board had explored all financial options to keep the campus open, as well that independent auditors be consulted in finding alternative means to keep the campus financially viable. 

She, like others, also questioned the timing of the decision, stating that two days before the closure of the annual school choice option was simply unfair to allow parents of students that attend Delight Elementary to fully weigh their options.

“[Only] two days to visit other districts and meet teachers and administrators, and that’s not possible because of the pandemic. So, basically two days to make phone calls and talk to as many people in other districts as you can … in two days, because that’s what you are leaving us with. Is that enough time to weigh your options?”

Tidwell stated that she held forms for school choice transfer or home-school from 35 students that would be implemented should the board have voted to close the campus immediately.

“Parents have already decided to sent their child somewhere else,” she said, stating that if the move to close the campus was financially based, then it would be compounded with the loss of revenue from students that would go elsewhere. “If this is about financial stability, the numbers [loss] will speak for themselves, the loss far exceeds the potential gains by closing Delight with this vote.”

In the 2020-2021 school year, the district is set to receive $7,018 from the state for each of its students in the average daily membership, according to the Arkansas Department of Education.

Tidwell stated that she hoped the school would stay open to give time to find alternatives in the future to resolve the need to close the campus.

“Be transparent with us and keep us informed, revisit the issue every month … this is what we voted you into position to do for us, this is how unity occurs … this is what brings communities together. What Mr. Sullivan has asked you to do is what further divides us … good people don’t do this to other good people, especially in times like this.”

Former Delight instructor Joyce Vitzhum, who retired from the position after 25 years locally last year, said the campus always has a great staff and is a high performing school as well as is important to the community. She said the community was “shocked and in mourning” about the possible closing, and stated that the community was not “ignorant and knew DES would be shut down one day,” but nothing had been mentioned about the issue for years.

“We were not prepared for this and we feel blindsided … I know you board members know how we feel.”

She said it would be “professional and courteous” to forewarn the community before the closing DES.

 “It was very sad for me to walk by my classroom last year after being a Bulldog for 25 years, but it was my choice. Just imagine the Delight teachers and students who walked out of the classroom on March 13 not even knowing it was the last time that they would ever be inside the walls of Delight Elementary as teachers and students. Don’t do this to them, we need one more year please … we need closure and time to wrap our heads around the fact that Delight Elementary will come to an end.”

Delight graduate Amy Campbell said the community needed the school “for their souls” and questioned if the savings of closing the school would be for more than simply the cost of utilities.

Scott Howard stated the problem was simply “overspending” and questioned of “putting the kids first” was really the case despite the perpetual mission statement.

Murfreesboro resident Sarah Branch stated that while she didn’t want to see the school closed and questioned the need, she trusted the right decision would be made and that she supported the board in making a decision “she felt for them” having to make. “If this whole district closes down, that will be detrimental to multiple people, so if it’s the option for the greater good, then close the campus.”

Delight resident Misty Pruitt said as a former Houston, Texas resident, she felt smaller class sizes were better for students. “It takes away from the learning experience to have so many children in one classroom … larger classes in Murfreesboro will just make it harder for the children to learn.”

Chris May questioned if there was truly a need to cause more chaos in the midst of a “national crisis,” and said the decision to close the school wasn’t due to “transparent financial information.”

Holly Williams, a mother of three at DES, said it has been a “stressful week” on which Delight parents were being accused of being “selfish, silly for trying to advocate for our school and told it was foolish to protest … we are only asking for one more chance, one more year, and maybe nothing will change in that year, but at least in that time we will have more warning … we want our children to have that year to make good memories and not go out on a bad note that this pandemic has caused. They have already had so much taken from them these past couple of months, their worlds have been rocked, please don’t make their last memories of DES end like this.”

She said it would be better for the classes to take field trips to the Murfreesboro campus to aid in the adjustment period next year. “Our school has an ‘A’ rating [from the Arkansas Department of Education]. I’ve heard people say, that’s easy to get with such small classes — and our school does have small classes, but the teachers and kids still worked hard for that rating.”

Anne Terrell, a business owner in Murfreesboro, said the decision should be a rational one. “While as a whole so many people are wanting to think with their hearts at this moment, the school is a business and the largest employer in our area. There is no perfect answer … the problem is that we are in a rural area without any big industry and finances are always going to be an issue for the school district … and we are one district.”

She added that either more enrollment or an increased millage would be the only way for the school to have increased funding. She said the Delight school was annexed by the district at the behest of the state and that the use of the word consolidation was incorrect.

“Delight’s enrollment issues is what caused the Arkansas Department of Education to mandate they merge with another school district.”

She said at the time of annexation her husband was on the school board and it was discussed at what time it would become not financially feasible to operate two campuses. “They estimated that to be at about 100 students at that time. Delight Elementary has been under 100 students since 2016.”

She said while the financial information may not have been shared with the community well, leading to the unexpected recommendation by SPCSD Superintendent Brad Sullivan, the numbers have been on the wall especially in the face of the new expenses related to teacher raises and the minimum wage increase.

“I feel like merging the elementariness is the first step and it will help … solving the financially issues will be done in phases and it’s not a one and done process, there will be other cuts, other changes, absorption of teachers leaving or retiring … in today’s climate everyone has a new perspective on things. Eleven years ago when the annexation occurred we were considered one school district — we are one district — and I would like for that to be remembered. The decision to be made by the board, and I feel for you, is what is best for all students, not just one campus or elementary.”

Melissa Molnaird spoke in favor of the school closing, stating some Delight classes were as low as 8-9 students, while Murfreesboro was more in the 22-24 student range. She added that she was told were also no special education classes at DES, which helped toward the “A” school rating, while Murfreesboro Elementary has a “C” rating.

“I can assure you it does matter in more than one way — when Delight Elementary received their “A” rating it was thrown in Murfreesboro parent’s, teacher’s and student’s faces on social media and in person about how well Delight school did on their testing. Delight has no reason not to make an “A” on their testing, with only 81 students and no SPED classes to bring the overall test grade down.”

She added that she was not “downing” special education, having one child of her own in the classes, while adding that it was not fair that DES teachers get paid the same to teach much smaller classes as their Murfreesboro counterparts.

“It’s no slap in the face,” Molnaird said of the consolidation. “I’ve had multiple discussions with parents of Delight students and they have all said they knew it was coming, they just didn’t know when.” To close, Molnaird defined the word consolidation — “the process of making something stronger or more solid, or the process of combining a number of things into a single or more coherent whole.”

“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy, I’m telling you it’s going to be well worth it,” she said.

Also virtually speaking was Christy Terrell, Amanda Goodwin and Sharon Salter.

SPCSD Superintendent Sullivan made his “transparent” presentation to the board and those watching online, explaining in detail his recommendation.

He said he was hired in February 2019 to be the superintendent for both communities and the school district.

“I took that responsibility to heart and as an educator and as a leader, the most important thing I can do is to give direction to lead the district for long term success. Something that drives me is student success, and what can be do to allow our students to be successful long term? That’s my passion and something I have talked about with our staff from day one.”

He said as an “outsider coming in” he was impressed with the district’s staff, students and communities from “day one.”

“It’s been good from day one, and the people here are special and mean a great deal to me.”

He reiterated the district got to the point of closing the Delight campus due to the upcoming deficit “going forward” by the school district due to mandates raises over overstaffing by the school district.

“The teacher raises will cost our district greatly going forward … and when we look at that and know where we will be going forward as the implementation of those raises go into effect, if we are not proactive and take steps [the district] will get to a point we are financially in a bad place.”

He said the issue has become more evident to him as he settled into his job.

“As I got here and saw the impact it would have, where it was going to put us in the years to come, it was alarming.”

He said while the public may not have been aware of the full extent of the financial issues to this point, he has full communicated them to the staff and board of the district, and that it was not unknown to either before his arrival.

As with the meeting two weeks before, Sullivan covered the impact of the raises in a dollar figure, along with the amount of money the state would allot to offset the costs through the 2023-2024 school year in which the costs will be borne by the district alone to the additional sum of $527,270 in salaries plus benefits. The average teacher currently costs the district $52,000 in salary plus benefits annually. He also added the cost savings of closing the DES campus alone would be in the $100,000-$140,000 range annually, based on last year’s expenses.

In addition to the employee comparison to schools of the same size and other financial figures discussed at the last meeting, the number of students enrolled at DES was included in year by year format, from the high of 139 students in 2010 to 81 in 2020.

Admitting it would “never be a good time to close a campus,” Sullivan said it was a decision he didn’t take lightly, it would behoove the district to make the move in the time of pandemic chaos, especially in light of the lack of literacy foundational skills for K-2. By having the extra teachers on board at the Murfreesboro campus next year, remediation could more effectively be implemented for those students who fell through the cracks.

“We are doing the best we can do with AMI instruction [while the kids are not at school], which is well considering, but the skills affect the student’s entire future education, in a year full of change we might as well include all change, and plan for the best results with the time we have.”

He admitted that Delight was being successful as an educational entity with it’s “A” rating by the state Board of Education (along with MES’ “C” and MHS’ “B” ratings). He also said that the technological opportunities the district was affording students was being noticed and copied by other school districts.

“It’s a great school district and success is happening … I’m proud of the work that is going on here, and I desire an opportunity for success for our students. But it is time for us to come together as a district, while I hate the timing and hear the disappointment and concern of Delight parents.”

Sullivan said he went through a similar issue with his children when their elementary school was absorbed into a much larger system in which students weren’t afforded to all go to the same school together.

“It’s emotional, and it’s tough … with God and trusting the people in charge, my girls turned out okay. If I saw a path to keeping DES open through financial stability, I would run down it,” he stated, noting that a pair of outside sources — the Arkansas Association of Education Administrators and the Arkansas Public School Resource Center — have looked at the numbers and given feedback to him, so he wasn’t just solely making the tough decision without advice.

“I didn’t just sit down with them and tell them ‘this is what I want, tell me what I need to do’ … they saw where we were overstaffed, they saw where we are spending our money, and those outside sources is what is directing me. I’ve talked to 2-A and 3-A superintendents around the state to say ‘what can we do?’”

He said that compared to the 25 state school districts closest in size to SPC, that the local district had 12 more educators than the average for the other 24 districts.

“I was told we’d have to get this down, and that would just be the start … we don’t fit the [state number] matrix for student to teacher ratio, and that’s where we get into trouble at a small school.”

He said it became complex at high school especially, when the school was forced to meet standards by offering many different programs of study, and yet forced to control the number of teachers they employed.

Sullivan said the situation at elementary was different, and positions could be absorbed to save money by “putting everyone under one roof, and that would be the start of getting initial savings” in addition to the long term savings of having less elementary teachers.

Although not yet accepted by the board (due to be discussed at the regular May meeting), Sullivan said two MES teachers had submitted their resignations in the past two weeks and the current situation has left him in an almost contrary position to what would be the norm.

“As I have reflected on that, I was almost ‘Okay! We have some room to get leaner’ … the reality is that we have two quality teachers that are leaving our district and I’m not sad over that, and I really should be. When you have quality educators, as we have across our district, and I get some comfort in seeing people leave? But that’s got to happen for us to get leaner as a district.”

He said plans to absorb the positions was already ongoing and there would be no hires to replace the departed educators.

“I don’t see us rehiring staff for a period of time, unless it is a case for us to meet standards. If we can meet standards with someone that is already on staff, then obviously we will do that instead of hiring an additional outside staff member.”

As part of his bullet points, Sullivan said that the district received approximately $119,000 from the Delight School District in the original annexation, along with $2.6 million from the state Department of Education, $1.4 million of which was currently held in a bank CD. Approximately $500,000 of those funds was used to build new classrooms at the time and noted that the districts also combined debt in the combination.

He had also been questioned if the annexation of Delight helped the Murfreesboro School District get off the financial distress list it was on at the time.

While he said the district had begun to implement measures — such as a reduction in force and had a increased millage voted in by the public to get off the list, it was “true” that the annexation sped up the process.

However, Sullivan said the Murfreesboro campus would not be benefitting with extras due to the closure of DES.

“I’ve been told the Delight campus was being closed so we can build an arena, a field house and a parking lot — I can tell you, and the board can speak to this, that there’s never been a plan for that … I don’t see that happening because of the state we are in with revenue. To do that will cost us millions of dollars, and we don’t have the revenue, so it would take a millage increase to do that.”

He added that without proactive steps now, the future would look bleak. “If we don’t start being proactive, there is a reduction in force (RIF) coming, we will have to do it eventually, we won’t have a choice … by being proactive at this time, we can hopefully avoid a RIF over time.”

He also restated he has been told by peers and superiors that the district had better “be prepared to do with less” as financial fallout from the pandemic began to rear it’s ugly head, noting that education dollars would be less likely to be bountiful from the state and that locally, tourism dollars would simply be down this year, which could affect local taxes both in amount and when paid after the start of the school year.

“Yes, we’ve been told what next year’s allotment is [from the state], but if we are short [in revenue as a state] we won’t get it. I’m not saying that is going to happen, but it potentially could, we don’t know what the next few weeks to months hold. We do need to consider it.”

Again he apologized for the course of action, but said it was necessary. “I’m not a Delight person, I’m not a Murfreesboro person … I’m a student person and I’m a district person. For people with questions, my door is open, it’s always been open. I made the recommendation for the good of our students — all students — I will support the direction, you the board gives me …. but we need direction. I want to see this district be successful long term.”

He also recapped his plan for moving the sixth grade to the MHS building just off the cafeteria, with that wing originally intended to be a “middle school” when constructed.

After being asked by a board member what he thought about the potential loss of students by parents due the closing of the school, Sullivan said he was concerned and “that might expedite a RIF quicker, obviously … [student leaving] that’s concerning, but we have a lot of positives going on at [MES] and kids are succeeding, but yes there is a larger student/teacher ratio.”

Sullivan said the Head Start remaining in the DES building would be up to the board’s discretion.

In a comment period for board members, several of the elected representatives made statements.

Board member Jeramy Humphry said that while the “numbers don’t lie” he was disturbed at some of the posts on Facebook that called Delight a “swamp” and was “liked by teachers in this school.”

The board agreed that there was much vitriol from both sides on social media over the past few weeks and was simply uncalled for.

Board member Scott Maroon said he simply felt that however the board voted, they needed to leave the meeting “with direction … we need to lead the district in the direction it needs to go.”

Board president Steve Conly said that while he “hated this”, and acknowledged that while the idea was “probably” a surprise to the Delight community, but that it wasn’t to members of the school board. “We’ve been talking about this for four of five years, [former Superintendent Roger] Featherston wanted to do this 4-5 years ago, and we shut him down because when the finances are good there was no reason to do it.”

A board member for nine years, he added that it was always the thought that good finances and approximately 100 students would be the standard for keeping DES open, noting both the current declining student numbers and district finances as reasons for consideration.

“It’s important to the community, and we know … I worked in Delight for 33 years, and I said to someone that if something happened to Murfreesboro, Delight would be the first people over here, and we’d do the same for that community … there is love toward both communities, and this is a tough decision. But you can’t run a business or a school with zero money put back, there’s always going to be something that happens … we’re not in financial distress — we are good right now, [Sullivan] has no agenda for making the [future] numbers look one way or the other, they are what they are — we didn’t cause it, he didn’t cause it, but we are dealt it and have to live with it.”

He added that simply closing the Delight campus would not solve the financial issues upcoming for the district.

“It will not the be the only answer to what we need down the road — even if we are able to cut our [teachers] by ten, which we are going to have to, that just gets us to $0 [extra employment spending] and doesn’t give us any extra to run the district and those special projects like roofs, HVAC units and things like that. But our superintendent sees it and knows we have to be proactive … we have to protect our cushion we have now.”

Conly said in his opinion the “best case scenario” would be to close the DES campus immediately from a financial standpoint, while allowing staff in the unique time “time to prepare to make this the best school we can make it. It’s all about the kids, it’s not about the adults, and I almost feel like if we can take the adult equation out of it, the kids will be fine.”

However, he said due to concerns of a quick decision during the pandemic without giving parents an opportunity to thoroughly explore other options, he recommended that the campus be closed after the 2020-2021 school year.

“I would be good with leaving the campus open one more year, but, I don’t want to come back in a year and say, ‘oh, no, we are going to think about it again.’ We need to give [Sullivan] direction and that will give him a year to plan for this and make it the best situation for our students. I don’t really feel that’s the right decision for our students, but I am willing … to compromise to that to get as close as possible to a unanimous decision [by the board]. I hate it, and never thought we’d have to go through this in my time here — but I do want to come out of this meeting with an answer. [Sullivan] deserves it, Delight deserves it and Murfreesboro deserves it also.”

Maroon said he agreed with closing after next school year after considering the issue for the past two weeks due to the “extraordinary times we’ve been through this spring.”

Board member Joe House added that he spoke for the teachers after it felt like “we hammered them … we need to be on board with our teachers, they are the ones getting us our good grades — it rubs we wrong we are talking about cutting teachers and not letting go of anyone else. I’d just like to say thank you to all the teachers out there, cause they are the ones making the grades — not [the board] or administration.”

Angie Fabian stated that closing the campus alone wouldn’t solve the issue, and that the school would have to be looked at as a whole and not simply the teacher employment.

“They will have to look at everything — administration, coaches, everything. As far as our employees we will have to look at them all.”

Conly said he trusted that Sullivan would “honor his word” and do exactly that in keeping the district financially viable. “We are going to get this right, and get [the district] lean and we’re going to make it work.”

The motion of closing the Delight Elementary campus after the 2020-2021 school year was placed before the board by President Conly, with the vote affirming the act 4-3. Conly, Maroon, Minton and Trent Cox all voted for the motion, while Humphry, House and Fabian voted against the motion.

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