To say it was very hot at Keplar Elementary School in Hawkins County Thursday afternoon is putting it mildly.
More than 100 upset parents and community members packed the Keplar gymnasium for a forum explaining the Hawkins County Board of Education’s decision to transfer the fourth and fifth grade classes at Keplar to Hawkins Elementary School in Rogersville three weeks before the start of the 2019-20 school year.
Many think this a sign the board will eventually close this rural school of 97 students, located eight miles from Rogersville.
When discussing the possibility of sending fourth and fifth graders to Hawkins Elementary, Hixson said the number of students affected are 15 fourth-grade students and 23 fifth-grade students. Keplar will now serve grades K-3.
In the current kindergarten class, there have only been nine students to register for the upcoming school year.
The Board of Education voted 5-1 last Thursday to bus fourth and fifth graders from Keplar to Hawkins Elementary School in Rogersville. Board members Chairman Bob Larkins, Vice Chairman Debbie Shedden, Chris Christian, Kathy Cradic and Jackie Charles voted in favor. Tecky Hicks, the board member representing Keplar, was the lone dissenting vote.
“We want to make the best decision based on the students, not based on emotional reasons, and I know the emotions are high,” Larkins said.
Director of Schools Matt Hixson said at last week’s board meeting this was not a decision to close Keplar, but to send the fourth and fifth graders to Hawkins Elementary.
“Because of the timeline, I felt like we needed to get something on the table and start the conversation because time is short,” Hixson said. “Three weeks (from the start of the school year) is a tough timeline. We didn’t know about the teachers leaving until late June. The budget started to hit and we really didn’t know where we stood with that until we got word back from the County Commission, who we worked really, really closely with.”
The director took responsibility for not publicizing the vote to transfer the third and fourth grades from Keplar last week.
“I take the blame for any perception that we were trying to hide anything at last Thursday’s board meeting. That is completely on me, and you can ask the board, they did not know about that before. I’m still learning the process and I appreciate your patience. You could be a lot more upset and agitated, and I appreciate your patience and your willingness to ask questions,” Hixson told the crowd.
Hixson was not blaming the commission for cuts in funding. The Hawkins County Commission cut two cents from the schools budget for this year, amounting to a $205,000 deficit.
“We were already looking at cuts and ways to be more fiscally solvent way before the county decided to take those two pennies,” Hixson said. “They have the value outlook. We have the school outlook. We have to do what we have to do with the money we have. We need to be more communitive, we don’t need to let emotions dictate. We need to work together to solve these issues.
The crowd didn’t see it that way inside the gym that had no air conditioning.
One parent moved from Church Hill so his children could attend Keplar.
“I’ve got two kids who go to school here. I went to school here,” he said. “You ask my wife all I’ve done and Miss Patty and Miss Judy have known me all of my life. This is a great school and I feel like, personally, you all are trying to shoo us out. Everybody is trying to fight for this county except for you all. I brought my kids here because I wanted them to have a good education. I don’t care about you or anybody else in this room except for my young’uns. We are thinking about homeschooling our children because of you all’s situation. I’m not going through you all if we home school because you won’t get a dime in you all’s pocket. You are trying to ruin a good thing for this county, this community and these folks. These grade scores are coming out here good because it’s a small school. You send them over yonder (Rogersville) and there’s going to be too many students for the teachers. That just ain’t going to work. You all know that. All you are seeing are dollar signs. It’s not about dollar signs, it’s about these kids.”
Another parent complained about the previous administration promising to investigate long bus rides, causing many children to have to get up before 6 a.m. to board the bus around 6:15 a.m.
“When I lived right out the road here (from the school),” the lady said. “The bus would pick me up at 6:20 a.m. That’s how screwed up the bus routes are. That really needs to be checked into. We were promised by the school board and Steve Starnes (Hixson’s predecessor as director of schools) that board members, commissioners and Starnes would get together and ride these routes. The time they were supposed to ride them, it was cancelled due to snow. We were promised that, but it never happened.”
The ride never took place, but routes go from Keplar through Beech Creek to the Sullivan County border near Blair’s Gap.
Another lady said that she loves Keplar.
“I don’t want to see this place closed,” she said. “If there is something we can do to make it plausible for two more teachers to come, or for more than one teacher to split or whatever, if that’s something we need to do, where do we go from here?”
Hixson said that the two teachers who left the school, one by resignation and the other by taking another position in the system, were being paid a total of $120,000 per year. By not filling those positions, that puts a major dent into the $205,000 deficit in the system’s fiscal year 2020 budget.
Others accused the system of not being transparent about repairs to the school, some sections which are 60 to 70 years old.
Hixson said that he read an old newspaper article from 1951 that stated there were 102 local community schools in Hawkins County at that time. There are now 19 total schools for the county, but just a handful remain what is a “community” school.