The Campbell County Board of Education faced some tough decisions in the face of a 1.8 million dollar budget shortfall caused by shrinking enrollment at some area schools. Two of the most painful cuts were the proposed removal of 6th-8th grade from White Oak K-8th and the closing of the alternative schools at Jellico and LaFollette and folding them back to on campus facilities.
After Tuesday night’s meeting 6th-8th grade at White Oak was saved, pleasing a group of White Oak parents who’d fought a tough battle to save their school. Throughout the process the Board and Director Fields tried to make cuts that effected the least number of students but unfortunately there was no way to make the cuts without some students being effected. This meant the off-campus alternative schools would feel the sting of the closures.
While some alternative school students are at the schools due to discipline issues, far from all of them are there for those reasons. Some choose to go there because they feel they don’t fit in in the large school environment that is found at local high schools. Some kids feel social pressures and respond differently to them than others. To those kids and families the alternative school represented hope and progress. A smaller environment with less social pressure that allowed the children to thrive.
It’s those families and students who are upset about the return of alternative students to campus. Tammy Pinion Dishman, who’s daughter started at CCHS but went to the Homer Rutherford Learning Academy in East LaFollette by choice, had this to say.
“Today in our county they (CC B.o.E) have closed the Homer A. Rutherford Learning Academy. The “alternative” school. Where most everyone thinks “bad” kids go. These kids are not “bad”. I fought hard for my daughter to go there! She excelled! I was told she had proven that that is where she was supposed to be. Those teachers cared about the students that went there, above and beyond anything I have ever seen. They treated them like people. Like human beings. Like all kids deserve to be treated.”
Dishman went on to note that her daughter’s learning advanced rapidly at the Academy and she was on track to graduate with excellent grades in 2020. She described the decision of the Campbell County Board of Education as “devastating” to her family.
Dishman’s daughter, Chloe, had this to say of her year at the Homer A. Rutherford Learning Academy.
“The alternative school wasn’t just a school. It was a family. Every child in that school is similar in some way or another but we are different in so many ways as well. One thing was clear though, we all belonged there. Sandy Wilson is the best principal that I have ever had. Mrs. Harrison and Mr. Willoughby are the best teachers that I have ever had. Mrs. Lester and Mrs. Snow are also amazing teachers. I am simply heartbroken that the Academy is closing.”
These calls were echoed across social media on Tuesday night by other parents who credited the alternative school as the salvation of their child’s educational journey. Unfortunately, that is the very sad nature of budget cuts. There’s always a loser in them. It’s frustrating that even though this may have represented the least number of children effected it represented some of the most vulnerable. It’s a sting felt by students, parents, educators, and the Campbell County Board of Education itself, who did not want this for any of these children.
Director Fields gave this statement to the Times regarding the decisions made by the board.
“One of our guidelines in making cuts to the budget was to make cuts that would yield the largest amount of savings, affecting the fewest amount of students possible. The alternative school is an asset to our school district and it was difficult to arrive at this decision. The school district loses $215,000.00 annually on operational costs to keep the school open. It is difficult to justify that when our BEP funding has been reduced. That was the largest cut, affecting the fewest students.”
Time will tell if alternative forms of funding will come into play to allow the return of these schools or if declining enrollment will force more cuts. If the voucher plan implemented in certain Tennessee counties goes statewide in the future, this budget shortfall may be a minor one compared to what would come at that point. If that happens a future board will face more very tough choices regarding staff, schools and ultimately students.