Hawkins Co. School Board considering alternative options for Keplar Elementary following transparency concerns

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ROGERSVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – On Thursday, dozens of Hawkins County parents turned out to oppose a recent Board of Education vote to bus Keplar Elementary’s fourth and fifth graders to Hawkins Elementary come August.

The fate of these students is still largely unclear after an emotional parent input meeting that lasted nearly two hours.

Patti Crawford, a Keplar Elementary alumni, made the trip from Knoxville to attend the meeting.

Patti Crawford, a Keplar Elementary alumni, spoke passionately Thursday night about the Board of Education’s recent vote to begin bussing fourth and fifth graders.

Crawford is one of many parents who feel moving fourth and fifth graders will be the beginning of the end for a school that’s been at risk of closure for years.

“We are all very passionate about our community. This school is our pillar. You take this away, we have nothing,” she said.

Many parents felt they didn’t have adequate notice to weigh in before the board’s initial vote.

“I just couldn’t believe that they had done and taken that action without us being able to be at the meeting,” said Tammy Lyons, whose daughter is in the fifth grade. “The agenda was vague, there was no reference to Keplar. There was no way we would’ve known in advance that they were going to make that kind of decision that night.”

The original agenda, posted on the school system’s website, only listed the name of Director of Schools Matt Hixon under “reports.” The item was later amended to say “Matt Hixson — Class collapse/closure.”

Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said this vote was in violation of the Sunshine Law, which requires elected officials to give adequate public notice of government proceedings.

Director of Schools Matt Hixon took “full responsibility” for the decision. “To have the board vote, yes, that was the wrong decision,” he said “Here’s my thinking on that. We have to get the board’s approval to close a school. This was not a discussion to close a school. It was a discussion to move students based on the fact that we can’t fund two teaching positions.”

State data shows Hawkins County has lost 908 students between FY 2010 and FY 2018. That’s a budget hit of more than $9 million based on funding per-pupil alone.

On top of that, the Hawkins County Commission recently voted to cut the school system’s budget.

“Based on the 2 cents we lost, which was $205 thousand dollars, we had to regroup and try to find out where we were going to make up the loss,” said Board of Education Chairman Bob Larkins. “We knew that we had two teachers leaving this particular school and we felt like if we didn’t fill those we could save a portion of that, which amounts to $120 thousand.”

School leaders are now considering alternatives but Hixon said refilling the two recently vacated teaching positions at Keplar Elementary is off the table.

“If we go with plan B and keep fourth and fifth graders here we need to identify a way to do so without adding additional staff that would add to the bottom line of the budget,” Hixon said.

He said one alternative they’re considering is having existing staff teach multiple grade levels by having students rotate for different subjects.

Yet concerns remain among board members that this could spread teachers too thin.

“We want to make a decision that’s based on the best interest of the students, not based on emotional reasons and I know the emotions are high,” Larkins said.

The board is considering holding a special called meeting early next week to discuss alternative options.

If they don’t hold a meeting, Hixon said the board’s previous vote will stand.

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