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Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Thornton meets with members of the Buckhorn school community Monday night at the embattled school. (Alta LeCompte photo) / December 08, 2010
Mecklenburg County's superintendent of schools on Monday invited Buckhorn parents to embrace his county-wide vision for tackling a budget crisis, operating more efficiently, attracting and retaining staff, and updating school facilities.

They declined.

Dr. James Thornton outlined his plan for closing Buckhorn Elementary School, the smallest in the division, during a meeting with the Buckhorn school community at the school Monday night. Closing the school would help weather the current budget crisis, he said.

A revised estimate of savings of $912,056 would come from cutting 12 teaching positions and six aides division-wide, as well as reducing support staff and capturing operational savings from closing the school.

The school consolidation proposal calls for closing Buckhorn at the end of the school year and sending most of its students to the new, underutilized South Hill Elementary School.

Based on where they live in the county, a lesser number of children would attend Clarksville, Chase City and La Crosse elementary schools.

A public hearing on the proposal to close Buckhorn is scheduled for 7 p.m. today at the school board meeting room in Boydton. Anyone wishing to speak is asked to call Sharon Shuttleworth at 738-6111 prior to the meeting.

Enlarging the scope of the discussion, Thornton told the audience at Buckhorn that in addition to consolidating schools, the division the must modernize facilities and revise salary scales that are among the lowest in the region.

He said attracting and retaining staff has to be the No 1 priority now and in the future.

Why do so many changes have to happen now, Thornton asked.

“Someone obviously has not addressed staffing, efficiency, and facility issues for a long time,” he said. “We have to make recommendations based on 4,600 students in the school division. We have to do the best for all of them.”

Thornton spoke to the parents and a handful of school board members and county supervisors. Most of the near-capacity crowd sat on child-sized stools and benches in the Buckhorn Elementary cafeteria.

“You solve these issues by strategically planning and evaluating efficiencies within your organization while not affecting the quality of instruction at the building level,” said Thornton. “You do not solve problems by waiting for better times and continue spending money inefficiently just because it is easier or convenient to do so.”

Thornton said research indicates the interactions between students and teachers make the greatest impact on learning.

It’s the interaction goes on between the four small walls in the classroom — and not the size of the four exterior walls of the building — that determines the quality of a child’s educational experience, he said.

When Thornton finished his presentation, a silent chill as penetrating as the 29-degree air outside hung in the air in the cafeteria.

Buckhorn Principal Joan Covington attempted to close the meeting, which she had announced was for information only.

She had previously told parents that the principals of all the elementary schools their children might attend would be available to talk with parents when the meeting ended. She said she had a master assignment list. A map showing where students would be transported had been hung in the hall. Assistant superintendents Carole Nelson and Dr. Kim Evans would circulate with class size information, she said.

Parents began calling out questions, and Covington fielded a few. A parent called out, “He should be up there.”

Thornton returned to the podium when a member of the audience asked, “If all the classrooms are full, where are they going to go? Are they going to be put in trailers out in back of the schools?”

“We will not add any mobile units to make this move,” the superintendent said. “Those trailers are a result of lack of vision and have nothing to do with my recommendation.”

He added that the majority of Buckhorn’s children would attend South Hill Elementary School, where they would have access to “a gym, an art room, and a media center with 21st century technology they do not have access to today.”

Thornton was met a barrage of questions from the audience, most of them expressing concern about the quality of education their children would receive at other schools and the amount of time they would spend on school buses.

In answer to the busing question, he said students who live very close to Buckhorn would not be transported to Chase City or Clarksville.

A member of the audience wanted to know whether Buckhorn’s “wonderful teachers” would keep their jobs.

The audience applauded.

Thornton replied that throughout the division there are other teachers that work just as hard and love the children just as much. And some of them are going to lose their jobs.

“That’s the hard, cold reality,” he said.

Thornton had stated during his slide presentation that the Reduction in Force (RIF) policy, based primarily on seniority, would determine staff cuts.

“RIFs will not all be from Buckhorn. They will come from throughout the division. They may not come from any employees at Buckhorn,” he said.

He called allegations that the quality of education would decline if Buckhorn closed “an insult to the rest of our teaching staff.”

All elementary schools in the division score in the 90s on SOLS, he said.

“Before this was a Title I Distinguished School, Chase City was a Title I distinguished School,” he added.

A man in the audience asked how the county division could save any money from closing the school if it still had to maintain the building.

Thornton said that his recommendation differed from the Evergreen Solutions LLC Efficiency Review of 2007, which recommended converting the Buckhorn school to an alternative education center.

“At this point it is not my recommendation to use this building for alternative education. My recommendation is to close the building down. The projected savings are based on that.”

Another man asked to what extent the administration had taken into account projected growth in the county.

“That’s a good question,” Thornton said.

He said enrollment currently is declining.

“Can we turn it around with jobs. Absolutely. I hope the answer will be to look to a capital improvement plan to remodel or build schools with a 600 student capacity.”

When asked if had a backup plan in case the School Board does not approve his proposal, Thornton said the probable alternative would be to reduce staff across all nine schools.

That would have a negative impact on instruction, he commented.

“Closing Buckhorn does not solve all our woes,” Thornton continued.

He said that central office, maintenance, and other responsibility centers would see RIFs.

“We will try not to reduce the instructional staff size at the schools that remain open,” he said.

Samantha Evans called out: “Why is the budget more important than our kids?”

Evans asked why the school division couldn’t cut salaries to address the budget crisis.

“Why not another school? “ she continued.

Thornton said he couldn’t argue against neighborhood schools, but the “day of neighborhood schools is fast coming to and end,” both in Virginia and nationally.

He said the efficiency study suggested closing Buckhorn because it houses only 260 students rather than La Crosse, which serves 358.

The evening began with Thornton’s presentation in which he addressed questions raised by Buckhorn parents after they learned of the proposed closing.

Speaking slowly, he showed a chart that described state funding levels prior to the 2008 closing of Boydton Elementary School. He said that decision, made before he joined the school division, was based on efficiency considerations rather than funding cuts.

He noted that Boydton scores on standardized tests prior to the closing were higher in some categories than Buckhorn’s and that former Boytdon students continue to thrive in the schools they now attend.

He then reviewed the financials, stating that projected state funding decreases, coupled with increases in retirement fund payments the division must make, total more than $1 million.

He charted current class sizes at all the schools involved in the consolidation and told the audience the move would not increase class size.

Sharing details of the plan, he said:

n A “bubble class “of 103 students in Chase City 5th grade will move out and create additional space;

n Clarksville will need one to two additional teachers and can currently house these within existing structures.

He showed a chart listing bus routes and estimated riding times for Buckhorn students, which range from 49 to 78 minutes.

n Updated bus route projections will be available at the public hearing on Wednesday, which should show little to no increase in travel time for students. It is even hoped that there will be some reduction in times for some students who are currently experiencing longer bus routes.”

School board members Robert Puryear, Mary Hicks, Thomas Bullock, and Debra Smiley attended the Buckhorn meeting. County supervisors attending were Glenn Barbour, William Blalock, and Jim Jennings.

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