HAZARD — The Perry County School Board held a special meeting on the evening of Jan. 7 to hear public comments about the recently adapted district facility plan for Perry County schools. The gathering served as a hearing, meaning the public was permitted to address the board with thoughts or concerns. However, the board was not required to answer questions or bring forth a vote on district facility matters. All of the executive actions necessary to approve the district facility plan had already occurred and thus the plan was finalized.
All of the elected Perry County School Board members were present at the hearing, along with Superintendent Jonathan Jett and Finance Officer Jody Maggard, who outlined the district’s facility plan to the congregation of citizens filling the boardroom, many of whom were on-hand to learn which schools would be consolidating into the new facilities the district is building.
These are the schools that will be transitioning toward consolidation over the next four years. R.W. Combs, Viper, and Leatherwood will eventually close and the students in those schools will join together in the new South Perry Elementary facility. Chavies will also close with the school’s students split between Buckhorn Elementary and the new West Perry Elementary. Other schools will likely close to become part of West Perry as well. However, at the Jan. 7 hearing, these four schools were the only ones labeled as “transitional” according to the current district facility plan.
At least three of the citizens in attendance were displeased with the board’s actions. They were the only people to address the board at the hearing, and all three spoke in reference to Chavies Elementary School. The first to take the podium was Perry County Clerk Haven King.
“We’ve been talking about Chavies for I don’t know how long,” King said, “Chavies in 2013 was the number one priority. They had 10 million dollars set up for Chavies. So now Chavies is out whether we like it or not. But what I am saying is, you all just bypassed Chavies when three years ago it was a number one priority. And now you are eliminating Chavies. That is wrong because Chavies is where the growth is at. You might not want to hear it, but Chavies is where the growth is at. You got so many houses at the airport they’re waiting to build right now. They’ve bought eight more pieces of property and they are waiting to build eight more houses. We are working on something that will help build 250 more houses there. So, I can’t understand why Chavies was good three years ago, but now Chavies is nothing. Chavies means a lot to me. I think it’s wrong that we didn’t know anything about it. I’ve been told, no we have not made a definite decision on that. That’s what I’ve been told. So, I’ve been lied to because you’ve already made a decision according to what the facilities plan says. I think it’s wrong. I think it’s dirty. And it’s not right to do the people of Chavies and the students that way. I think it’s a shame and a disgrace to eliminate Chavies. It’s just wrong.”
Brenda Noble assumed the podium directly following Haven King’s statement. Noble spent years working as a teacher in the classroom and an employee of the Perry County Board of Education.
“It is a fact that I was here in a meeting and Chavies was priority number one,” Noble said, “The funding potential was approved. We were going to have a new school. What happened? You are our board member. What happened? You are the board chairman. What happened? We were number one. Our kids are just as important as anyone else’s and they deserve the best. The best for us and our community, as Haven talked about with the growth it is experiencing now and will experience over the next few years, is to have repairs to the school we have now, which is actually a good school, or to have a new school, which we were promised and the money was funded. Why do we get bypassed? The people of Chavies will not stand for it. We were just blatantly lied to by a lot of people. I expected more support from our elected officials; more support from our central office staff. I am very disappointed, and the children of Chavies will be very disappointed.”
Donald Rex Napier was the last speaker to address the board. Napier is a citizen of the Chavies community.
“It was told to us that the money was available,” said Napier, “Chavies was in the planning to be the number one priority. I do not understand how that can be wiped completely out. The money was there. The building site was there, and now it’s just gone. I think we need to look at this plan because you are eliminating schools in Perry County and pulling kids from Leatherwood where they are going to be bussed to this new school, South Perry. You’re going to send these kids from Chavies over to Buckhorn or West Perry. Why not build us a school at Chavies and call it North Perry? Why is this planning committee so undercover and so shady? I’m sorry, guys, but nobody brought any of this to our attention. Everything that I’ve been told is the fact that Chavies was number one. We were in the planning to build a new facility. What you all are doing is wrong.”
The Hazard Herald conducted an interview with Jonathan Jett and Jody Maggard on Jan. 14 to discuss the Board of Education’s position in this debate. Both officials stressed that up to date facilities for all students in the district were among their plans moving forward and with the decline in Perry County’s population due to the weakening economy, splitting up students is a difficult task. According to Jett and Maggard, placement of the new schools is a matter of logistics.
“If you grew up in a community and you went to school in that community, you hate to see that school go. I fully understand that,” said Jett, “The difference is, people in the community have the luxury of it being an emotional decision. We don’t. We have to make decisions based on how we can positively impact the biggest number of students.”
Maggard noted that with the need for more modernized schools in the technological age, the budget must focus less on facility upkeep costs and more on technology. According to Maggard, new state of the art schools will save taxpayers money in the long run, but the state will only allocate a certain amount of money for new facilities. Therefore, placement of the schools is key in ensuring that all students in the district can benefit from the upgrades.
“I understand people question us, and they should,” said Maggard, “but we have done up to three years worth of studies to find the best spot for these schools. We are doing our absolute best to make sure all students have access to the best facilities without having to be on the bus for a very long period of time.”
Maggard went on to explain that the drop in Perry County’s population has also resulted in some community schools falling dangerously close to not meeting the state’s requirments for enrollment in terms of building size and the number of staff employed. Consolidation, according to Maggard, is a key to preserving jobs and continuing to receive financial support from the state for each school.
But what about the claim that the people of Chavies were lied to about receiving a new facility and keeping their school open?
“We did have a plan to build Chavies a new school,” Jett said, “but the plan had to change. And the plan changed based on data, not feelings or anything like that. There is no way we could justify building a new school at Chavies, when Chavies sits in between the West Perry and Buckhorn districts, within 15 miles either direction. When we’re looking at the entire district and developing a strategic plan for years down the road, the best decision is to build West Perry and then also build a new school for kids in the south end of the county.”
Haven King argues that, regardless of what the Board of Education feels is best, they did not treat the people of Chavies properly. King’s stance on the issue, as well as Brenda Noble and Donald Rex Napier, is not to debate whether or not one community deserves a new school over another, but rather, these three citizens state that the Board of Education promised the children in their community a new school and then changed their minds without appropriately notifying citizens and allowing discussion to occur. Jonathan Jett and Jody Maggard claim that all of the legal channels for notifying the public of meetings held on this subject were followed.
Although no timeline has been established for when the new schools will open and the old schools will close, there can be no debating this fact. Students of R.W. Combs, Viper, Leatherwood and Chavies will see their schools close in the coming years, with South Perry and West Perry welcoming them.
Chavies Elementary first opened its doors in 1974. The school’s list of graduates includes professionals from all different walks of life. No one knows what legacies the future schools of Perry County will build, but everyone can hope that the new schools’ traditions of excellence can equal the traditions of the schools that will be closing.
Sam Neace can be contacted at 606-629-3243 or on Twitter @HazardHerald.