By Larry Fugate
Both sides in the debate over the proposed closure of Redfield Middle School are no closer to reaching an agreement, White Hall School District Superintendent Dr. Larry Smith and Todd Dobbins, president of the Save Redfield Middle School task force, acknowledged Tuesday morning.
“The only numbers that have changed involve Gov. Mike Beebe’s proposed state budget, which calls for a two percent increase in education spending,” Smith said. The legislative session begins in January.
“We are requesting that they cut us loose,” Dobbins told The Progress. The task force has discussed formation of a charter school and the Redfield area withdrawing from the White Hall district, he added.
The former Redfield School District was dissolved by the state in 1949 when enrollment fell below 350 students and merged the following year with the White Hall district.
The White Hall board was expanded from five to seven members with the annexation, giving Redfield two votes on the board. A resolution adopted May 15, 1950, by the White Hall board stated that a “standard elementary and junior high school will be maintained at Redfield.”
The middle school is housed in the former Redfield High School building, constructed in 1930 by the Works Progress Administration.
“There are a lot of suppositions about potential events that will affect the White Hall School District,” task force spokesman Amanda Kight wrote in a Nov. 13 letter to the White Hall School Board. “These decisions should not be based on proposed or potential events.”
The task force has established a fund at Pine Bluff National Bank to finance expenses and is soliciting donations for a legal challenge, Dobbins said earlier.
The school board agreed Nov. 13 to meet in December or January with task force representatives, but have since said scheduling conflicts prohibit a meeting until after the first of the new year.
The task force was formed after Smith gave a 41-page analysis to the board during a three-hour September planning or work session. One of a number of options in the report involved closing Redfield Middle School and consolidating its student body at White Hall Middle School.
The superintendent cited falling enrollment, reduced state educational funding with lower enrollment, potential increases in operating costs and unknown funding levels because of congressional budget disputes.
“We understand the school board has to plan for the future,” Kight wrote in the Nov. 13 letter to the board. “But we strongly feel you should not make decisions of great importance based on what-if scenarios.
“This document outlines areas of financial concerns, declining enrollment, and federal sequestration. The document addresses all of these potential or proposed events and determines that the one and only solution for this potential shortfall is to close Redfield Middle School.
“The four areas of concerns add up to a potential shortfall of $491,176. The only solution offered … at most will cover less than $350,000 of the projected … shortfall. This option puts over 70 percent of the burden of the … shortfall squarely on the shoulders of the city of Redfield and the 120 children that attend” the Redfield school.
Kight suggested the board review other areas in the White Hall budget and identify monies to cover funding issues. Reviews of the Watson Chapel and Sheridan districts identified several other areas for potential cuts, including athletics, she added.
Smith acknowledged last week “the numbers are a moving target. That’s the crap shoot. We don’t know.”
School districts find themselves in a Catch-22 situation, he added during an interview. If school administrators wait until the General Assembly and Congress act, they will be limited on personnel changes that can be implemented.
District employment contracts for the 2013-14 school year are distributed beginning in January and must be returned by May, Smith said, adding that he advised the board that any decision on possible school closure must be made before the contracts are distributed.
While the preliminary projected annual savings on closing the Redfield school was $350,000, Smith said a more detailed review indicated a savings of $382,695 to $412,801.
Redfield and White Hall were the only Jefferson County municipalities to show growth from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Kight noted, emphasizing that the closure of the Redfield school would hamstring residential development.
The city has several growing residential developments and was recently authorized to extend water and sewer lines under Interstate 530, opening the potential for more development, she added.
“We can’t go on potential,” Smith responded. “The state asks what happened last year, not next year.”
Control of local schools by local school boards has been “greatly diminished after the Lakeview case,” Smith said.
With the loss of more than $1 million annually in state funding because of shrinking enrollment, the White Hall board is watching the bottom line closely, said Smith.