The members of the Perry County Board of Education are not in an enviable position. They find themselves this week working to formulate a plan that could, eventually, result in the consolidation of three elementary schools in the central part of the county and the replacement of Chavies in the north.
Both of these projects are needed, according to district officials, but both are not likely to happen at the same time, meaning the board will have to make a decision as to which project gets top billing.
Based on the turnout at last week’s board meeting, there is a lot of concern from all sides. Some want consolidation, others do not. Others still want Chavies to get the top priority, especially after the possible availability of 15 acres of land donated to the district.
But again, both of these projects cannot be completed simultaneously even with donated land, so one will have to come before the other. Ultimately, this is going to come down to a matter of numbers, and in this situation, the numbers favor consolidation.
First, according to figures stated at last week’s meeting, consolidating Big Creek, Willard, and A.B. Combs schools will serve the most number of students, giving them access to a new school building, presumably with state-of-the-art capabilities. The facilities plan approved by the local planning committee calls for a school capable of serving a student body of 600 students.
Second, consolidation makes sense financially in a county with not only declining student enrollment but a declining population. According to the 2010 census, Perry County actually lost population since the 2000 count, and has been steadily losing residents since the 1940s. A loss of population also represents a declining tax base and a decline in state funding. At some point, if enrollment continues to drop, the district may not be able to afford maintaining as many facilities as it currently does.
Third, while Chavies is noted as the school most in need of a new building, each of the schools proposed for consolidation face their own limitations. According to architect Melinda Joseph-Dezarn, who sits as a non-voting member of the local planning committee, the building at A.B. Combs is comparable in condition with Chavies. Additionally, renovations at the Big Creek and Willard schools are likely not options, and neither are building new separate buildings for schools with populations of less than 300 students.
Finally, the option of consolidating only Big Creek and Willard and then renovating A.B. Combs was mentioned last week, but remains cost-prohibitive with an estimated price tag of $10 million to renovate A.B. Combs by itself, according to Finance Officer Jody Maggard.
The only feasible option remaining is to consolidate these three schools into one.
Consolidation is never an easy choice, something we all found out in the 1990s when M.C. Napier and Dilce Combs became Perry County Central High School. There will be some adjusting, and concerns about class size mentioned during last week’s meeting are certainly not without merit. But the board cannot afford to do everything, and can afford even less the option of doing nothing.
Ultimately, however, the final decision will belong to the five members on the Perry County Board of Education, and it’s likely to be one of the hardest decisions that group will have to make. But it is also a situation in which the board has little wiggle room.
— The Hazard Herald