RISON - The Cleveland County School Board voted 6-1 Monday night to no longer use the Kingsland campus as an elementary school beginning with the 2019-20 school year.

On a motion by school board member Stan Sadler and second by William King, the school board voted to accept Superintendent Craig Dupuy’s recommendation to consolidate the district’s two elementary schools at the Rison campus.

Dupuy said the move will save the district money in light of escalating costs associated with salary increases and projected losses in revenue due to declining enrollment.

Rickey Spencer, the school board’s lone representative from Kingsland, cast the only vote against the motion.

Since the vote was not unanimous, the decision to consolidate the schools at Rison must be approved by the Arkansas State Board of Education.

Dupuy said Tuesday afternoon that he had already contacted the state board about the decision and feels the case will likely be heard on Thursday, May 9, in Little Rock. If not, he said it would be on Friday, May 10.

In addition to the vote on consolidating the elementary schools, the board voted to table a decision on moving the Rison Head Start students to Kingsland School until the state board rules on consolidating the elementaries.

Dozens of people, many of whom supported keeping Kingsland Elementary open, were on hand for the school board’s regular monthly meeting Monday night. The meeting was moved from the administration building to the Rison School cafeteria due to the dozens of people who were on hand.

Five people supporting Kingsland School addressed the school board before the board members began discussing it themselves.

Most of those who spoke on behalf asked the board to at least postpone a decision until a more thorough cost analysis could be conducted.

Kingsland Mayor Ron Workman asked the school board to consider hiring a financial consultant to see if there was a way to keep Kingsland Elementary open. “I think before we do anything, we need to look at what we’re spending,” Workman told the board, adding that school districts spend money on what he called “dog and pony shows” that are not used by the district.

Shane Matthews, a pastor in Kingsland, noted that Kingsland Elementary received two national awards this school year: a Blue Ribbon Award presented by the U.S. Department of Education for its improvement on test scores, and second grade teacher Tasha Wilson was one of only about 40 teachers nationwide to receive the Milken Educator Award.

Matthews asked the board to consider an “apples to apples” cost analysis that would compare the costs of moving elementary students from Kingsland to Rison and from Rison to Kingsland. He said such an analysis would need to take into account what modifications and upgrades will be needed at either campus to accommodate all the students as well as what the cost will be for the additional transportation.

“Have you done a real, thorough, objective cost study?,” Matthews asked.

“If you have not made a study, then why are you making a decision?,” he followed up.

Other speakers also touted feasibility studies as well as the facility itself, noting that it is the newest school building in the district and is also equipped with a tornado safe room.

After the public comments, Dupuy made his case that his recommendation was based on declining enrollment projections for the district as a whole - not just Kingsland. He said having one elementary in the district offered the best cost per student ratio.

As mentioned in previous meetings, Dupuy said his recommendation comes as a result of the increase in the minimum teacher pay that was approved by the state legislature earlier this year and the increase in the state minimum wage that was approved by voters in the 2018 general election. Combined, Dupuy said those salary increases will cost the district about $800,000 more per year once both are fully in place in four years.

Spencer urged his fellow board members to have the district take a closer look at more ways to save money before shutting the school down. “Take a little more time to make a decision,” he said.

School Board President Harrell Wilson answered that Dupuy had done extensive research on the numbers that were being presented to the board. “We don’t want to wait to the last minute like we have done in the past ... to affect our district,” he said.

Spencer also questioned why the district installed LED lighting and a security system at the Kingsland campus if the district was going to shut the school down. Dupuy said that decision only came after the salary increases were approved.

“A lot of this (having to make moves to reduce costs) is directed back to our legislators and our governor,” Dupuy said, referring to the legislation that raised the minimum teacher salary.

Spencer also asked if there was enough room at the Rison campus to hold all the students.

Dupuy said there was. By moving Rison Head Start to the Kingsland campus, Dupuy said one plan is to use the existing head start building to possibly house the fifth and sixth grades.

However, he said Tuesday that even if the Head Start building is not used, there will still be enough space in Rison Elementary to house all the students, though it would be tight.

School board member Stan Sadler of Rison had the longest dialogue on the matter.

“We all know this ball started rolling about 30 years ago,” Sadler said, eluding to state mandates that began forcing smaller schools to consolidate.

Sadler said school consolidation seems to be occurring in cycles, as more schools and districts are being forced to merge due to increasing demands from the state.

“In another cycle, it might be this school district (referring to the Cleveland County School District) - period,” he said. “There might not be a school district in Cleveland County.”

Sadler urged everyone to “bury the hatchet” and stop the divisiveness. He noted that he has family ties to the Kingsland area like many of those that were in the audience.

FINANCIAL IMPACT

Dupuy said Tuesday that it will be difficult to assess exactly how much money the district will save by consolidating the district’s two elementary schools to the Rison campus until all the staffing is finalized.

Dupuy said it is not the desire of the school board that any employee, whether it be certified or class staff, lose their job as a result of the consolidation. However, he said the district will instead rely on natural attrition through retirements, resignations or relocations to determine what staff is ultimately needed.

Some of that attrition is already underway considering that the Cleveland County School Board approved two resignations from elementary teachers Monday night: one retiring from Rison and one resigning from Kingsland to relocate to another part of the state.

Last month, the school board accepted the resignation of the school nurse at the Kingsland campus.

Dupuy said they will have to assess whether the district will need to fill those vacancies going into the 2019-20 school year.

One area where he did have hard figures was for transportation.

Two scenarios were presented to the school board for consolidation: move the Kingsland students to the Rison campus, or move the Rison students to the Kingsland campus.

Dupuy has maintained that it is easier to transport the 70 to 75 students at Kingsland to Rison as opposed to moving approximately 275 students from Rison to Kingsland.

Based on his estimates, Dupuy said the district would need five buses with seating for about 55 on each bus to transport students from Rison to Kingsland. Those buses would be traveling about 32 miles round trip each school day from Rison to Kingsland. That would equate to about 28,800 miles per year.

With each bus getting approximately 6 miles per gallon, and with the current non-tax price for diesel fuel being $2.31 per gallon, the fuel cost would be about $11,088 more per year.

Dupuy noted that does not include the additional wear and tear on the bus fleet from traveling an additional 28,800 miles each year.

Dupuy said the bus scheduled at Rison would have to be revamped as well. He said the first bus would leave Rison at 6 a.m. with other buses leaving behind that. All those buses would return to Rison School where the elementary students would reload onto another bus and make the trip to Kingsland. The tentative schedule would have the buses leaving Rison at 7:30 a.m. and arriving at Kingsland at 7:40 a.m., allowing for breakfast to be served between 7:40 and 8 a.m. at Kingsland.

Based on his projections, Dupuy said three drivers would earn at least one hour of overtime, and drivers would also have to drive empty buses over and back each day. He said two drivers would earn a campus-to-campus shuttle.

Based on current pay schedules, Dupuy estimated the district would have to pay an additional $49,655.33 (pay plus benefits) each year to implement the Rison-to-Kingsland bus plan.

Meanwhile, Dupuy estimated it would cost the district an extra $24,225.80 each year in bus driver pay to transport students from Kingsland to Rison each school day.

Brit Talent is the editor and publisher of the Cleveland County Herald in Rison.