Talking about school consolidation is necessary

Published 12:01 pm Wednesday, April 17, 2019

School consolidation in Carter County? Consolidation is almost a dirty word when you talk about closing small community schools, but, let’s face it, consolidation is perhaps the obvious move for a county faced with persistent budget problems and fewer students.
Carter County schools have been losing students for several years — roughly 1,300 students between 2012 and March of this year, most to the Elizabethton School System and some to home school.
School Supt. Kevin Ward has suggested the board hire an independent firm to do a study, which would include consolidation. With enrollment dropping, resources are spread thin. It eventually will mean eliminating teachers, dropping programs, etc.
School consolidation is never an easy decision for any board because it always leaves many county residents without a familiar community resource. It always draws opposition from both parents and students.
However, the board when the time comes must muster the will to make the right decision despite concerns, which are legitimate and heartfelt.
The move to consolidate schools in Carter County is often misunderstood as an effort to close schools. At this point, the school board is only looking at its options.
There is such great pride within our local schools that dates back decades. We need to retain that pride and make our schools the best they can be. However, hard conversations about the future of our local schools need to happen, and the proposed study is a great starting point.
If such a study finds that consolidating schools is found worthy of pursuit, it should be encouraged. Education already takes a large hunk of our tax dollars. It costs to build and maintain school buildings, to pay teachers and support personnel, to buy textbooks. No one wants to pay higher taxes, yet every community wants its own school.
You have to give Supt. Kevin Ward credit. He doesn’t back away from difficult topics. Now as Ward contemplates retirement, he is pushing the board to wrestle with the gorilla in the room, the need to consolidate some schools. Carter County is not a rich county, yet it is maintaining four high schools, two middle schools, and nine elementary schools. How long can we afford it?
It is time to bite the bullet and deal with it, and the study Supt. Ward is advocating, may be the first step in facing the issue head-on.
Carter County is not alone. Rural school systems across the state find their student populations shrinking as young families flock to metro areas or make other educational choices.
This would be the board’s second run at the subject as a study made in 2012 recommended school consolidation. It drew parents’ wrath and was shelved.
Consolidation is a difficult decision, but it is one the board and county must soon face.
And, before people start storming school board meetings, let’s wait on the study, and keep an open mind about this process, and what it will mean for the county. The study is a starting point, and not a final decision.
Sure, people have valid concerns about long bus rides, the loss of neighborhood schools and thorny redistricting issues.
However, consolidation could mark a turning point for the Carter County School System. The board can continue to spend taxpayers’ money to maintain outdated buildings, or make tough choices that would use public funds more effectively.
However, the goal should not be consolidation purely for the sake of cost savings. The goal should be consolidation for the sake of our community’s children and their future. Because even in those few areas of our education system that are still working, one thing is evident — we can do better.

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