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Could Carter County schools consolidate?

Superintendent and board to consider options

By: Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

Could the Carter County public school system move to consolidate the county’s two high schools? Sure, they could.

But should they? That’s the question that the facilities committee, and the board, will have to consider in the coming weeks and months.

It was an issue raised by new superintendent of school Dr. Paul Green during a half-time radio interview, and it’s one he thinks the district needs to consider even if they end up not approving the idea.

The reason, he explained, is that with School Recovery (SR) funds available from the state, the district could, with state money and their full bonding capacity, have access to up to $60 million for a new facility – up to $80 million with one model they ran. That’s way more than they could invest in individual school buildings, and it’s money that could be used without raising any local property taxes.

“If it’s going to happen, now is the time to do it,” Green said.

If it isn’t done now, when funds are available, he said, and has to be done in the future, it will result in a property tax increase, of up to double the current rate. The reason it might need to be done, he said, is a fall in student population. While the county can still justify two schools at the moment, if population continues to fall at the current rate, Green said, maintaining two schools won’t be viable in another ten years or so.

They also can’t get the $60 to $80 million they could for a single project to spread across the two high schools. That amount comes from taking $34 million from the SR pot, the $14 million already granted for improvement or replacement of facilities at East Carter High School, and the district’s bonding capacity – which will be tied up on the East Carter project if it continues. It also includes the approximately $7 million that is currently earmarked for HVAC improvements at the two middle schools.

Those repairs won’t be necessary, Green explained, because the middle schools could be moved into the existing high school buildings. This would alleviate the need for repairs while giving each middle school access to improved education and extracurricular resources that are already in place at the existing facilities.

The plan, as it is currently being considered, would only impact high school students – the middle schools and elementary schools would not be consolidated or impacted beyond the facilities upgrades for the two middle schools.

It also wouldn’t impact where any current high school students graduate. The plan, even if approved immediately, would take several years to complete. A site would need to be selected, prepared, and built upon. The first students to graduate from a new consolidated high school would probably be in middle school right now.

But there is another reason, besides avoiding future tax increases, for moving forward with a new facility, according to Green – consolidation can give both high schools, and the Career and Technical Center, better programs and facilities than they can ever have by splitting up resources. Green imagines a shared campus where CCCTC programs are open and available for more students to explore, and where the district can offer even more career and technical training. For instance, one program Green envisions is a possible hydroponics course, where students could learn sustainable agriculture practices.

But, he said, he understands the emotional attachment people have to their schools. In his last job, he said, he was on the other side of the table; hired specifically to keep his district independent rather than being consolidated into a larger system. But that doesn’t change the advantages that he believes a consolidated high school could bring to the county.

Despite this, he said he doesn’t have any desire to consolidate if it isn’t what the majority of the community wants. He’s already heard from folks who have acknowledged, and are excited about, the possibilities consolidation could bring.

“When you explain it to them, they understand the advantages,” he said.

But he’s also heard from folks who have said they will never support consolidation under any circumstances.

He isn’t here to force consolidation on the community though, he said. There is a process for the community to have their voices heard, and several rounds of approval before the project receives final approval from the board.

“People will have the opportunity to see the plans, voice their opinions, and discuss their wants and needs,” he said.

The district will be planning meetings on both ends of the county to discuss the possibility in the near future. While those meetings won’t feature final plans, they will feature some concepts and sketches to help the community understand what the new facility could be.

After those meetings, if the community seems supportive, the facilities committee would have to vote to amend the plans they’ve already approved for the East High School building. If they voted to amend those plans, it would put the new high school as the number one priority of the district, beginning in “probably February or March,” he explained.

If the plan is amended, the next step would be to send the plans to the Kentucky Department of Education for approval. After that the plans would come back to the school board for approval. The board would then have final say over whether to proceed, or to shelve the plans.

“If they vote to approve it, it would still be three to four years before it would open,” Green said.

While there is always the possibility that folks might pull their children from the system, or even attempt to create an independent district, Green said he doesn’t think that’s a serious concern for the district.

He also emphasized that there would be no change in staff. Instead, there might be some reassignment of duties that would help increase opportunities and programs for students. For instance, additional music classes could be added to take advantage of the skills of existing staff. But there would be no changes in student to teacher ratio, and some conflicts of duty could be worked out over the time period between approval and opening of the new facility.

He also acknowledged the impact of the closures on the occupational tax base of each community, but noted again that neither middle school, nor any elementary schools, would be closed under this new plan.

He also acknowledged that a change could result in some increased bussing time – he estimated around eight to ten minutes at most – but only for high school students, many of whom already drive to school to avoid early bus rides anyway.

While he knows even the suggestion of consolidation will upset some, he said it may ultimately be in the community’s best interest. But that isn’t his decision to make. It’s the role of the facilities committee, the department of education, and, finally, the school board to approve any plan. His role is to help develop and – if approved – implement the plan moving forward.
Whatever the community and board decide, he said, he will do his best to shepherd the district forward through it.     

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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