Drops in funding, enrollment lead to possible Boone schools closure

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Drops in funding, enrollment lead to possible Boone schools closure
By Ryan Quinn, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

In response to declining enrollment and lower property tax collections, the Boone County schools superintendent wants to close three of the county’s 10 elementary schools.

John Hudson said Wharton Elementary, which would merge with Van Elementary, will host a hearing at 6 p.m. on Nov. 2; Nellis Elementary, which would consolidate with Ashford-Rumble Elementary, will host a hearing at 6 p.m. on Nov. 9; and Jeffrey-Spencer Elementary, which would merge with Ramage Elementary, will probably host its hearing at 6 p.m. on Nov. 19.

Hudson said the county school board will likely vote on the closings in December. The board must approve the closures by Dec. 31 if the schools are to be closed this summer, in time for the start of next academic year.

The superintendent said projected cost savings from closing the schools would be available next week. He said the school board understands school closings are difficult, particularly for rural communities, but the county school system has lost millions of dollars in the past two years.

“We have to continue to provide a quality education for our students, not only next year, but in years to come,” Hudson said. He said students’ education won’t suffer from the closings.

Hudson said most of the lost funding is from lower property tax collections. Bonita Jarrell, chief tax deputy in the Boone County Sheriff’s Office, said 2015 property tax collections for local schools from July 15 to Sept. 30 were around $5.7 million, compared to $10.3 million for the same period last year. She said July 15 is the county’s start of tax collections, and Oct. 1 is when those who haven’t paid face penalties.

Jarrell said the downturn is due to coal company bankruptcies and the companies moving their equipment, which provides personal property taxes, out of the county.

Boone’s declining student enrollment is also a large factor — the county’s unofficial student enrollment count this school year is about 4,331 students, a drop of 147 from last academic year. And last school year saw a drop of 92 students from the prior school year.

Boone has seen declining enrollment over the past five school years, and the state aid funding formula automatically decreases money for counties that lose students.

Hudson also said Boone schools are losing another $250,000 after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s announcement earlier this week that state aid to schools, which hasn’t been cut since the early 1990s, would see a 1 percent cut. Tomblin ordered across-the-board state budget cuts Monday due to “unexpected and unprecedented” drops in the state’s severance tax collections.

Hudson said he’s not proposing closing the schools because they have poor facilities, but because they’re financially inefficient to operate. He said Boone’s Comprehensive Education Facilities Plan — developed by a group of about 45 people, including community members, students, teachers and administrators, and approved by the local school board in 2010 — already planned to close the schools if issues like declining enrollment made them inefficient.

He said Wharton has about 95 students for a 24 percent building utilization rate; after consolidation, Van, which currently has about 110 students, will have about a 60 percent utilization rate. Nellis has about 100 students for a 53 percent utilization rate; after consolidation, Ashford-Rumble, which currently has about 110 students, will have a 93 percent utilization rate. Jeffrey-Spencer has about 110 students for a 58 percent utilization rate; after consolidation, Ramage, which currently has about 220 students, will have a 79 percent utilization rate.

“The state likes to be 85 [percent utilization] or above, so with some of our consolidations we’re not even at 85,” Hudson said. “So what that means is we have room.”