CARTER COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — With long-discussed school consolidation now a reality for Carter County Schools, parents say they’re “disappointed” and “heartbroken.”

The Board of Education approved a consolidation plan on Thursday that will affect five schools: Keenburg, Little Milligan, Central, Hunter, and Hampton elementary schools.

Carter County Director of Schools Brandon Carpenter told News Channel 11 that though it was a difficult decision, planned school closures and consolidations were the only path forward for the district which is facing a $2.2 million shortfall next year.

The district has discussed closures for years as it’s faced declining enrollment and reduced funding.

“For years, we’ve kind of kicked the can down the road,” said Carpenter “There gets to be a point where there’s not many options left. We’re at that point.”

The district opted to close Keenburg Elementary entirely, sending its students to Central and Hunter Elementary Schools.

Little Milligan Elementary, which currently serves grades K-8, will be converted into a K-5 campus. Its sixth, seventh, and eighth graders will attend Hampton Elementary School.

Like losing a family

Parents say the changes will be a big blow to the school community they’ve come to love.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Tina Lyons, who attended Keenburg Elementary and has a fifth grader at the school.

She said though Keenburg is a small school, its closure will be a big loss.

“It’s kind of like were a big family,” said Lyons. “You have any kind of issues, they get addressed. Everybody takes care of everybody at Keenberg.”

Parents at Little Milligan Elementary say even though the school won’t close, the consolidation will be a big disruption to their community.

“It’s almost like the school is going through a divorce and these older kids are going with one parent and the younger kids are getting to stay with the other parent,” said Shelli Smith.

Smith said her children, in first grade and pre-kindergarten, will feel the loss of the older students even though they’re years from moving to Hampton.

“We played in a tournament with our youth club basketball last week and there were eighth graders from Little Milligan in the stands cheering on our junior cadet youth club team,” said Smith. “The kids feel the family atmosphere too.”

Shrinking schools

Carpenter said he didn’t take the decision to bring forward a consolidation plan lightly.

“This is an extremely tough decision,” Carpenter said. “We’ve really looked at some numbers and basically looked at every option available, and this was our only option in balancing our budget.”

According to a report provided to school board members, the consolidation plan will save the district about $1.6 million in recurring costs each year.

“These cuts are necessary to ensure that we don’t have tax raises on our citizens,” said Carpenter.

The district has been facing declining enrollment and consequently reduced funding for years.

Much of the loss has been driven by Keenburg Elementary. Carpenter said Keenburg has lost around 100 students since 2019, making up about half of the total enrollment loss in the district as a whole.

Closing Keenburg and moving students from Little Milligan to Hampton will also allow the district to save on salaries, said Carpenter. He said some positions where teachers are retiring will be eliminated.

The board report estimates just under $1.5 million in savings by eliminating positions after an individual retires. Carpenter said the district will not have to lay off any employees.

In addition to saving money, the district also hopes to gain revenue as part of the consolidation plan. Carpenter said the district will sell its central office building in Elizabethton and convert Keenburg Elementary into a campus for both the alternative school and administrative offices.

The district said they’ll begin the transition this summer and students will begin the 2023-24 year at their new schools.