School board to consider consolidations

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By Damon Lawrence

The financial crisis facing the school system has officials looking to explore consolidating high schools.

“We just need to find out if consolidation does save money or if doesn’t save money,” Roane County Board of Education Member Mike “Brillo” Miller said. “We need all the answers.”

Miller brought up the idea of consolidation at a meeting in July when board members were grappling with what to do about a $1.582 million shortfall for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

They decided to make cuts and use some money from instructional reserves, but that was only a temporary fix. Consolidation could be part of a long-term solution.

“I hope we’re going to look at every avenue – two schools, one school, leaving it like it is,” Miller said.

The school system currently has five high schools – Harriman, Midway, Oliver Springs, Roane County and Rockwood.

“Every time that I hear something about needing money or whatever, it’s never about another school,” County Commissioner Stanley Moore said. “The first thing I hear is Midway’s easier to do away with.”

Midway is the smallest of the five high schools. Closing it was on a list of potential cuts this year, but it never came up for a vote. Next year could be a different story.

“I don’t know that we ever gain by closing small schools because a school is the heart of the community,” Director of Schools Gary Aytes said. “I would hope that we could solve our financial crisis without doing that, but that is and will have to remain an option.”

Aytes had a lengthy discussion with commissioners about the financial crisis earlier this month.

“What’s your opinion right now?” Moore asked. “What do you feel about your future?”

“I think there’s going to have to be some help,” Aytes responded.

Getting more money from the county might not be an option with the current commission. A 14-cent increase in the property tax rate would have generated $1.582 million for the school system. The board made that request earlier this year, but the commission voted 13-0 in July to keep the county rate at $2.18 per $100 valuation.  

“The fact that it’s a 13-0 vote made it clear that there’s no additional money for the school system,” Board Member Wade McCullough said.

Consolidation isn’t the only thing school officials will be exploring as a remedy for the financial crisis. They also plan to look at what other school systems are doing.

“One of the systems we’re looking at is Anderson County,” Aytes said. “They have the same number of students that we do. We’re hoping to look at them and see if we’re spending more per student than they are; why? What are they doing that we could do to help change that?”

In addition to looking outside, school officials have also talked about looking within.  

“We’re looking at core capacity of schools,” Aytes said. “We’re looking at the amount of money the BEP (Basic Education Program) formula generates for each of those schools, and we’re looking at how much money could be saved by closing those schools.”

Other things that have been mentioned include redistricting and transportation.

“There’s no doubt we can save money just in transportation,” Board Member Darrell “Drack” Langley said. “Out here on Ruritan Road you got kids coming to Midtown and Bowers is not five minutes away. Hidden Acres, five minutes from the city of Harriman, 10 minutes to school, and they’re going all the way to Oliver Springs. To me that’s wasting money.”

Those weren’t the only examples Langley mentioned.

“You got kids in Emory Heights going to Kingston, got a Harriman address, 10 minutes away from Harriman High School and Bowers Elementary. You’re not talking about a lot of kids, but the buses run there everyday.”

The school board’s facilities committee will meet today – Monday – at 5:30 p.m. A redistricting committee meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Both meetings will be held at the central office on Bluff Road in Kingston.       

“That is to layout the ground work for how we want to look at what we have, what we’re going to measure,” Board Chairman Rob Jago said about the meetings. “We’re going to lay it out, get our plan together to look at that.”