April 23, 2014 Edition

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BR closing will bring changes

Falesha Johnson (left) and Sammi Joe Stephens, both 10th graders at Black Rock High School, study together in class. Students across the Black Rock campus are finishing projects and preparing for the final tests the school will administer in the last month of classes before the campus closes.
TD Photo ~ Megan Heyl

Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

In October 2013, the Lawrence County School Board voted to consolidate the Black Rock School into the Walnut Ridge campus. Enrollment was down at both schools and the board had already been preparing for less funding for the 2014-15 school year.

"It's not something anybody wanted to do," Lawrence County School District Supt. Terry Belcher said. "Sometimes change is very good, but this is a lot of change for the Walnut Ridge and Black Rock campuses."

Students and faculty at both schools and residents of the two towns have been preparing for the transition since it was announced, but a lot is left to be done and many questions remain to be answered.

"There's been a lot of work so far on both ends and there's a lot of work moving forward," Belcher said.

The closing of the Black Rock campus was not something the board decided on lightly. It has been on the minds of board members, staff and students for years.

In 2003, after the case of Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee, the Arkansas General Assembly declared the system of funding public education to be unconstitutional. The Assembly passed a new system, which included a 350-student average daily membership minimal requirement per school district. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, between 2003 and 2006, 121 districts were directly touched by consolidation or annexation, either as affected or receiving districts.

Walnut Ridge and Black Rock were two of the districts affected by the new laws when in 2006 the State Board of Education approved the voluntary petition to consolidate the districts into the Lawrence County School District.

Black Rock had 340 students when the two schools consolidated, and attendance continued to fall. Belcher stated that attendance at Black Rock for the 2013-14 school year was 261 and has been as low as 250. Because of low enrollment at the school, there has been anywhere from a $250,000 to $400,000 deficit in the budget. He estimated if the school remained open, it would continue to cost the district close to half a million dollars a year.

Belcher explained that the 350 minimum requirement wasn't just a random number lawmakers came up with. "It really is the break even point," he said.

State funding provides a little over $6,000 per child, schools with less students than 350 struggle to pay its staff, bills and other expenses. These expenses proved too much for the district and is the reason why the board was forced to consolidate.

"I'm glad we got to keep it open as long as we did," said Tim Andrews, a senior at Black Rock. Andrews said that the consolidation really hit students and staff hard at Black Rock. "We all had to be supportive of each other."

With some uncertainty about their future, students at Black Rock have gone through experiences similar to the stages of grief throughout the year.

"Nobody wants to see their school shut down," said Black Rock Junior Katalina Holbrook, who was a student at Oak Ridge and experienced the Twin Rivers District closing when she was in seventh grade. Holbrook said it gave her some comfort knowing that she would continue through her senior year with most of her current classmates still at her side. "It's better than it just shutting down."

Students at the Black Rock campus will continue their education at Walnut Ridge unless other arrangements are made. Some families have looked into enrolling into a different district under Freedom of Choice but current laws only allow three percent of a district's enrollment that option.

Belcher explained that siblings count as a single unit under this law, so a single child and a group of five siblings would both only take away one from the three percent. Based on Lawrence County School District's enrollment, a maximum of 31 families can use Freedom of Choice to opt out of the district.

The school board expects a reduction in the district's enrollment due to the consolidation.

Staff for the district will also face reductions with two principal positions being eliminated in administration and other cuts down to 137 employed next year from 162 this year.

Belcher said that additional English, mathematics, science and elementary teachers will be added to the Walnut Ridge campus to accommodate the additional students coming from Black Rock. He also said they will have an additional librarian at the school. Decisions about who was kept on staff were made entirely based on seniority.

Many of the staff who haven't been employed with the district very long will be affected by the reduction. Belcher said new employees had been informed of this possibility since the district's consolidation.

"I hate it for our young teachers, and for the ones who have been here eight years, 20 years," Belcher said. Two staff members from Walnut Ridge and four from Black Rock have made plans to retire at the end of the school year.

Black Rock agriculture teacher Terry Rorex decided to retire after the consolidation was announced. He said he might have had a couple of years left in him but he was happy to let Joey Rice, who he referred to as the younger guy, continue his work at Walnut Ridge.

Belcher said that several of those unable to continue at Walnut Ridge next year have new jobs and others are still searching. He said that he and other members of administration have been helping with references for those applying and added that this is the time of year most jobs open up.

In addition to staff changes, the district will also have to gradually decide what to do with the equipment and other property located at Black Rock. Equipment needed at the Walnut Ridge campus will be transferred over and teachers will have an opportunity to request items needed from the Black Rock campus. Items left will be handled under state regulations.

The 12 buildings on the Black Rock campus are also on the docket for the school board in the future, but there is no indication of when a decision will be made. Belcher said that various groups are interested in various sections of the campus.

Black Rock Mayor Bonnie Ragsdale has already made a request for the historic high school building and the cafeteria to be donated to the town to use as a community center and museum. She added she would like to see a satellite school be put in the newer buildings that are in good shape.

Some property, such as the baseball park and the walking track, is owned by both the district and the city of Black Rock. Those facilities will remain available for the foreseeable future and Belcher indicated the intent to use the ballpark for junior baseball practice if enough students show interest.

Belcher said they currently plan to keep all school buses and to run the Black Rock routes as they are now. If this is not cost effective, a central location at Black Rock will be established for the buses to bring students to and then shuttle them to Walnut Ridge in fewer vehicles.

In the early stages there was some discussion about keeping the Black Rock Elementary School open but the cost for the staff required to run it would be too high for the amount of state funding it would receive based on enrollment.

Belcher said to keep the elementary school open, they would have to employ seven teachers, administration, maintenance and cafeteria workers, as well as other staff. "We just didn't see it as a viable option," he said. BRES currently has 138 enrolled.

Ragsdale, a lifelong resident of Black Rock, said she hopes losing the school won't affect the city but she sees the possibility of losing some of the city's younger families because of the consolidation.

"I hope is doesn't mean that we will lose any of our patrons who live here, but I can't say that for sure. I have to try to put myself in their shoes and think if I had small kids and they had 12 years to go to school and they were going to have to be bused for an hour and half in the morning and a hour and a half in the afternoon, would I move closer to the school?"

As part of the district's efforts to ease the transition, students from Black Rock High School took a tour of the Walnut Ridge campus on April 14.

"We were very well received," said Becky Robinson, an English teacher at BRHS who will continue to teach at Walnut Ridge. "There will be more opportunities for them there and I think our students are looking forward to it. We encourage them to accept the change and take advantage of the opportunities they have."

Belcher said that the Walnut Ridge campus is preparing for its new students, new teachers and new routines for the 2014-15 school year. "We're looking forward to it," he added.

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