Fort Craig crisis

Parents put concerns, questions to city schools director

When the emotions and tension that comes with closing any school were stripped away, parents of Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning students had three basic components to ask visiting Maryville City Schools Director Stephanie Thompson:

Is this a “done deal?”

Has everything been done that can be to keep from closing Fort Craig?

Is this truly a matter of finances?

Thompson faced a packed house of approximately 200 at the Fort Craig Café on Friday to explain the administration’s position and answer questions.

One parent challenged whether or not the discussion on Fort Craig’s future is warranted. “You’ve already got it in your mind you’re closing us,” she said.

Thompson answered that the administration was doing everything they could to find solutions.

“We’re doing everything we can. Do you think I enjoy this? I’m trying to be realistic,” Thompson said. “I hate to put Dr. Best, your teachers and your children in this situation. I’m a life-time educator. I’m struggling, but I know we’re doing everything we can.”

Other parents had questions about the types of solutions that were being explored, including making Fort Craig tuition-based and whether or not elementary-age students were being shortchanged to benefit older students.

Samuel Duck suggested making Fort Craig completely tuition-based. “Put it up for public comment and see what people think,” Duck said.

Thompson said there has never been a proposal to make Fort Craig private. “I don’t think the school board would get into the private school business of charging tuition to resident students,” she said.

Robert Wolden told Thompson it looked like the system was considering shortchanging younger students to help older students. “This is what it feels like,” he said. “You’re robbing the education of kindergarteners for the education of older students,” he said. “That’s what it feels like is happening.”

Part of the proposal that includes closing Fort Craig also reconfigures the current grade groupings. Thompson said the reconfiguration would affect all schools. Kindergarten through third grade would be elementary; fourth through seventh grade would be intermediate; eighth and ninth grades would be middle, and 10th through 12th grades would be high school.

Thompson said that parents had previously voiced concern about putting fourth grade and seventh grade students in the same building. She said the fourth through seven grade students could be at the new Coulter Grove school and the current Maryville Intermediate School, or there could be one school for fourth and fifth graders and another for sixth and seventh graders.

“Right now, as for the fourth through seventh grades, the school board hasn’t decided how it will look. A task force will provide a report to the board on Feb. 1,” Thompson said. “Our second dilemma is we’ve been told by the city, they don’t have the money to open Coulter Grove in 2012.”

Thompson explained that there is a $1.4 million shortfall coming for Maryville City Schools. She said that closing Fort Craig would be a temporary measure because projections show a new elementary school would be needed within 10 years. “If we were to close Fort Craig for a few years to get us through the next few years, we would be OK until 2018-19 in elementary schools,” she said.

Thompson said $788,992 annually would be saved if Fort Craig were closed. The teachers and staff would be transferred to other schools, she said.

Thompson said 85 percent of the school system’s budget is payroll. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room, and we did offer a retirement incentive,” she said. “We’re losing some of our most experienced teachers, though.”

The schools director also outlined other cost-saving actions the administration has taken, saying that five certified positions, including the cafeteria director at central office, were eliminated. “It’s always a question: How top heavy is central office? We are not top heavy. We are very efficient, and every person has multiple jobs,” she said.

In addition, many teachers’ assistants were moved from full-time to part-time, she said. Thompson said dental coverage was dropped. “Last year we dropped to 50 percent and this current year we’re no longer paying any dental,” she said.

The schools director said the system’s coaches weren’t spared. “We did a comparison with eight other school systems and reduced and eliminated 52 supplements for coaches,” she said.

Thompson said tuition students are paying $2,200 a year, which is one of the highest in the region. “Twenty years ago 25 percent of the school population was tuition students. This year it is 3 to 4 percent and half of them are teachers’ or city employees’ children,” she said. “If we removed all of them, that’s only 200 kids spread over 13 grades.”

The schools director said the system’s cafeterias have historically operated in the “red” but in recent years changes were made. Now the cafeterias are finishing the year in the “black” with money left over to purchase equipment the school board normally had to cover.

“We’ve tried to look at everything we can do to try and save money,” she said. “On top of all that, we have to worry about state-funding.”

Thompson said the state will be $1.5 billion short when federal stimulus funds run out next year.

Principal Dr. Ramona Best encouraged the parents to remain positive as the school board determines Fort Craig’s future. “The mountain tops are for inspiration. We are in the valley, and we’re going to grow fruit,” she said.

Teacher Angie Barham said that the Fort Craig teachers were committed to the children regardless of whether they are teaching at Fort Craig or another school.

“What you see when you walk in the building is inside us. This will not go way. We love teaching. Wherever you put us, we will help the transition for your children,” she said.

Thompson said she wanted the parents to have as much information as possible. There will be a joint session of the school board and the Maryville City Council at 7 p.m. on Jan. 25 at the Maryville High School auditorium. On Feb. 22, the school board will to vote on whether or not to close Fort Craig as well as the fourth through seventh grade configuration, she said.

Attorney and Fort Craig parent Rom Meares questioned Thompson as to how committed she is to keeping the school open. “If the city can come up with $1.4 million, you’re on record that this place should be saved?” to which Thompson answered, “Yes.”

Thompson said school systems across the country are dealing with budget woes and many are having to close schools.

The schools director said she wants parents to know the school system is doing everything they can during this difficult time. “We’re going to do everything we can to make all the transitions we’ll be going through in 2012 be the best it can be for the children and families in our school system because every school will be impacted,” she said.

Thompson said her biggest concern if the school closes is to ensure each child gets into the school they need to attend, and she encouraged parents to be involved wherever their children attended school.

“Parent participation is what this school was built on. I hope if this happens, you will be just as involved in other schools as you are here,” she said.

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