Kentucky School Advocate
June 2020Closure (n) 1: an act of closing: the condition of being closed.2: an often comforting or satisfying sense of finality
By Josh Shoulta
In the winter months between 1861 and 1862, classes were cancelled at the West Point School when Union forces occupied the building. The school again closed for two weeks in 1908 when drought caused more than 12 feet of dust to accumulate in the streets. Ten years later, Spanish Influenza shut down all Kentucky public schools for two months.
In spring of 1929, the school burned, but was quickly rebuilt and reopened the following school year. Flood waters from the nearby Ohio River temporarily closed the school in 1937. And again in 1964 and 1997. Following that third bout of severe flooding, the community began to feel an economic squeeze not uncommon among small river towns. Businesses dried up and the population and economy dwindled.
This year, with fewer than 150 P-8 students, West Point Independent leaders determined that continuing the district was no longer financially feasible. Even with one of the Commonwealth’s highest property tax rates and the per-pupil funding from the state, it wasn’t enough. On top of that, recruiting and retaining qualified faculty and staff was a challenge.
Before the start of the 2019-20 school year, the district faced a teacher shortage that left opening day in doubt. Then the superintendent and principal resigned. A Kentucky Department of Education audit recommended that the state take over the struggling district and many assumed that then-Commissioner Wayne Lewis would merge the district while it was under state management.
West Point Independent Board Chairman Eddie Moore spent 18 years as a board member and nearly a decade as a student. His involvement with the district, and his willingness to fight tooth-and-nail for it, stem from a personal connection.
Going into a board meeting this past August, Moore was angry and was prepared to call out former staff and the state. But shortly before the meeting he had a change of heart.
“I can’t do that. As much as I wanted to, I had to keep positive,” Moore said recently, his voice cracking as he struggled to hold back tears. “A lot of people are depending on us. I kept the meeting positive, and we went on with it.”
The board appointed Sally Sugg as interim superintendent. A former school board member herself (Henderson County), she brought a thoughtful, incremental approach to address the audit’s findings. Board members say it was Sugg’s optimism – not just her impressive resume – that created a positive dynamic between the board and administration that had been lacking.
West Point appealed the state’s recommendation, figuring that if a war, disease and half a dozen natural disasters didn’t close the district, neither should a commissioner’s pen. Leaders vowed to address the issues outlined in KDE’s audit report.
“No matter where we are, our goal every day is to make today better than yesterday,” Sugg said of the board team’s goals.
They focused on committing time and resources to address issues in the audit. And while the district made progress, “the writing was on the wall,” Moore said.
“As it became apparent that (a merger) was something we would have to discuss very seriously early on, I told the board we really have a deadline,” Sugg said. She told the board that from her experience, significant staffing arrangements and planning occur in February; they needed to decide by that time.
The board braced for push back from raising the possibility of a merger. But, while there were some objections from West Point families, the response was largely affirming. Moore credits that to the district’s efforts to answer questions and communicate with its residents.
“We were very transparent with them through our meetings, answering emailed questions, presentations,” he said. “We didn’t just spring this on them. This was months in the making.”
On Feb. 18, 2020, after careful exploration, the board voted to merge with Hardin County Schools, starting in 2020-21. On July 1, West Point will be without its own school system for the first time since 1848.
The months leading up to the decision were difficult and painful. But board members take solace in the fact that they made the decision and had the best interests of students at heart.
“I’m proud that we had the negotiation power, instead of letting the state dictate what happened to our school and our students,” Moore said. In working with Hardin County, West Point was able to arrange where students would transfer and how staff might seek new employment opportunities.
“This entire process has been about putting children first,” said Hardin County Schools Superintendent Teresa Morgan. “We know that this has been an emotional time for students, families and staff of West Point Independent School. We want everyone involved to know that our district will take excellent care of everyone involved and will make this transition as seamless as possible.”
Moore is comforted by the fact that new opportunities await West Point students. At a Hardin County board meeting he watched a lengthy series of student presentations.
“School after school, all these students going up there and getting these awards for different things they were involved in,” he said. “I thought, our kids could do that.”
Just a few weeks after both districts approved the merger, the COVID-19 pandemic ended the school year early. Highly anticipated celebrations scheduled for West Point’s last weeks were replaced with socially distanced events.
“We had a lot of beautiful plans to transition our students to Hardin County,” Sugg (right) said. “Obviously, those things haven’t been able to happen in the same way, but we are still doing things.”
Even without the expected fanfare, the board team wrapped up the year with a bittersweet sense of community pride.
“We were able to bring the staff, students, parents together to have a wonderful last year. For me that is the most rewarding thing,” Sugg said. “From the challenge of the KDE takeover recommendation, all the way to the point now where we are packing up books to take to Hardin County, we are doing it together. By and large, everyone rallied around that one point that we all want to do what’s best for our students.”