Johnson County downsized a school. Did they do it legally?

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JOHNSON COUNTY, TENN. (WJHL) – While many families are preparing for a new school year, some Johnson County parents said they were surprised to find their children won’t be attending Shady Valley Elementary School this year.

Ashley Worlock said her youngest daughter was poised to begin 6th grade at Shady Valley Elementary. Worlock said her daughter was excited to be the only 6th grader at the school.

She said that changed a few weeks ago when she found out that the Johnson County Board of Education voted to downsize the school from a pre-K-6 school to a K-5 for the 2019-2020 school year.

“I did not find this out officially from the director of schools or from any of the school board members,” Worlock said. “It was a person in our community (that told me).”

When she contacted Director of Schools Mischelle Simcox, Worlock said she was told that her daughter would begin her 6th-grade year at Mountain City Elementary instead.

The meeting minutes from that called meeting on June 17 shows the motion passed in a 3-2 vote. Gary Matheson, the board member who represents Shady Valley, voted against the motion along with Vice Chairman Kevin Long.

“I wasn’t aware of this coming up on the student population that night until we got into the roundtable,” Matheson said, adding, “I voted against it, number one because the people had not been notified of what was taking place.”

Johnson County Board of Education member Gary Matheson said he didn’t know Shady Valley would be up for discussion at a called meeting last month.

The board’s decision

At 21 students in grades Kindergarten through 5th grade, Shady Valley is the smallest elementary school in Johnson County and the state, Simcox said.

The issue came up under an agenda item titled ‘Student Enrollment.” Simcox said enrollment is an ongoing discussion for the board, and in a meeting at the end of the fiscal year, she said enrollment discussion intertwines with discussion on the budget.

“We had one vacant (teacher) position to be filled, so the board wanted to know all the options that could go with,” Simcox said. “Do we fill this position? Do we not fill this position because the numbers are so low?”

Because of the low enrollment at Shady Valley Elementary, the school employed four teachers to teach split grades last year: A pre-Kindergarten/Kindergarten class, a 1st and 2nd grade class, a 3rd and 4th grade class, and a 5th and 6th grade class.

The board opted not to fill the vacant teaching position, nix the pre-K and 6th grade classes, and restructure the classes for three teachers.

“The option that was voted on was the one 6th grade student would be bussed to Mountain City Elementary, and we would not have pre-K at Shady Elementary,” she said. “There (were) only two students enrolled at the time in pre-K, but pre-K is not mandated, it’s not required.”

Worlock said she asked if her daughter could stay at Shady Valley since she was the only student in her grade, but Simcox said a Johnson County board policy limits split classes to two per teacher.

Johnson County Director of Schools Mischelle Simcox said enrollment is an ongoing discussion with the board.

The low enrollment also means that the county spends more per student at Shady Valley Elementary than the other larger schools. Simcox said while the county spends about $4,000 per student at Mountain City, the county spends more than twice as much for students at Shady Valley Elementary.

Worlock said she was told finances played a part in the board’s decision to move her daughter to another school, but Simcox said it wasn’t a “determining factor.”

“As the board, they have to look out for the best for all students, and what’s equitable and also, budget-wise, what’s feasible and realistic,” she said.”

While Worlock and her daughter were re-assigned to a different school, parents who had registered their children for pre-K classes were not.

Logan Meredith, a college student who enrolled her four-year-old daughter in pre-K classes at Shady Valley, said no one told her that the school would no longer have those classes until weeks after the meeting.

“I have yet to even receive any kind of notification, official notification, from the school board,” she said on Tuesday.

She said she was given suggestions for three other schools in the county, but by the time she learned she couldn’t take her daughter to Shady Valley, only Mountain City Elementary had pre-K spots left.

“The thought that some of the children would have to go outside of the local community to another school when it’s right here, it’s disappointing,” she said.

Logan Meredith said she enrolled her daughter in pre-K at Shady Valley and never received official notification that the board voted to discontinue the pre-K class at the school.

Not enough notice?

Worlock and Meredith said they were unaware discontinuing their children’s classes was even on the table.

Tennessee state law dictates that governing bodies must provide adequate public notice ahead of meetings and special-called meetings.

Simcox and Matheson said the meeting agenda was placed in two public buildings – the county courthouse and central office. She said her office sends meeting announcements to the local paper, but they don’t always get printed.

Meredith said there’s no way most parents would know about the county’s school board meetings.

“A lot of people work 9 to 5,” she said. “And what happens with the building? It closes at 5. It doesn’t enable the community to stay in touch with any meetings that the school board has.

“It’s not adequate enough.”

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher said she’s seen cases like this one, where governing bodies bend the public meeting law in a crunch to get budgets together in time for the beginning of the fiscal year.

“Skipping those steps, even if you’re in a rush to adopt a budget can have negative consequences,” she said. “It makes people think you’re trying to do things without them knowing.”

She said the best general practice is to post meetings in as many places as possible, including online and on social media.

“There’s so many ways to reach people, you have so many channels to reach people anymore, and you should use them all,” she said.

Worlock also said she believes the board didn’t take the care to let the public know what they would be discussing at the meeting.

She pointed at the “Student Enrollment” agenda item and said it was too vague for people to know what the board would be discussing.

Ashley Worlock found out her daughter will be attending Mountain City Elementary School after a called Johnson County Board of Education meeting.

Fisher said it’s important that agendas are as clear as possible so the public knows what to expect in a meeting.

“I can’t say for sure because I don’t know all the facts,” she said, “But if they didn’t post it and include in there they were shutting down one of the grades or two of the grades, that would seem to be relevant and probably should have been on the agenda.”

Simcox said officials are considering posting future meetings on a public Facebook page.

A fear of closure

Shaving off two grades for the year has parents worried that the school is on its way to closure.

The school serves as a beacon for those in the small Shady Valley community – and because the mountains isolate the area from the rest of the county, those in the community say they’ve always felt like they have to fight to keep it open.

Closing the school would mean current Shady Valley students would have to go to Mountain City. Community members worry that means 90-minute bus rides over the mountain, trekking a windy mountain road nicknamed “The Snake.”

Meredith, a Shady Valley alumna, said rumors of the school’s closure have swirled the community ever since she was in school, and the board’s decision to close two grades for the year worries her.

“They’re taking away pre-k this year and the sixth grade,” she said. “Okay, what could happen next year? That’s what I’m thinking. If they take two grades this year, what’s going to stop them from taking two more grades?

“Until I have a notice, it’s always up for debate. Until there’s a notice, there’s a hope that it’ll stay open.”

Shady Valley Elementary School.

Simcox said she hasn’t heard anything about closing the school since she’s been the director for the past five years.

“It is the smallest elementary school in the state, so I think (community members) are worried about the declining enrollment.”

While the motion to make Shady Valley a K-5 was only for a year, Simcox said the board will have to consider the issue next year.

Worlock said she doesn’t have much faith that the school board will reinstate the two grades.

I don’t believe that because of the inconsistencies of what I’ve been told,” she said.

Worlock and Meredith have scheduled a community meeting about the school. Community members will meet at the Elementary school at 6:30 Thursday night.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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