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Silver Grove

‘Hardest decision I ever had to make”

Silver Grove the latest independent school district to consolidate

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2019

By Brenna R. Kelly and Matt McCarty
Staff writers

From his front window, Paul Hehman can see the red brick building where generations of Silver Grove residents walked to school. That building –Silver Grove Independent School – is now empty. 

Instead of walking to school, children in the Ohio River town of about 1,200 people now gather at bus stops on the ends of the town’s narrow streets to a ride a bus to a Campbell County school. 

As of July 1, the 108-year-old Silver Grove Independent school district ceased to exist, the result of a 4-1 vote of the district’s school board.

“This was probably the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life, because the kids and the parents do tug at your heart strings,” said Hehman, one of the board members who voted in February to merge with Campbell County. 

Though many of Kentucky’s independent school districts are thriving, others face the same challenges as Silver Grove – declining enrollment, low accountability ratings and high property taxes. It’s up to locally elected school board members to decide what’s best for students, employees and taxpayers – keep the district or close it. 

Silver Grove’s fate was sealed by the results of the 2018 general election. By a quirk of timing, four of five seats on the district’s board were on the ballot. Hehman and three other candidates formed a slate to challenge the four incumbent members – their slogan was “Vote for Change” and their promise was to open merger discussions with Campbell County. 

When the votes were counted, all four challengers won – receiving nearly twice the number of votes as the incumbents. In January, the new members joined Melanie Pelle, the only member whose seat was not up for election and now the only board member who did not support a merger. 

Immediately after being sworn in, the new board voted to reach out to Campbell County.

For Hehman the issue was simple: Silver Grove’s property taxes were too high and students weren’t getting enough opportunities for the money. 

“Compared to what we were paying in taxes and the opportunities we were giving kids with all that money compared to Campbell County,” he said, “it was almost, in my opinion, a no-brainer to merge.” 

Silver Grove’s property rate was the highest in the state at $1.22 per $100 of assessed value. Campbell County’s rate was 67.5 cents, meaning the owner of a $92,300 home, Silver Grove’s median home value, could save about $500 a year. 

But it wasn’t just about the money, with just under 200 students, Silver Grove could not provide the academic opportunities or extracurricular activities such as band, football or soccer available at Campbell County, Hehman said. The curriculum guide at Campbell County High School was 14 pages while Silver Grove’s was about three, he said. 

For years, Silver Grove ranked at or near the bottom of the state in academic performance. In the state accountability results released this fall, the elementary and high school each earned two stars, while the middle school earned one star.

Just 10 percent of Silver Grove’s elementary students scored distinguished or proficient in science, just 15 percent in writing and 22 percent in math. The high school’s graduation rate was 80 percent, more than 10 points below the state average. 

Even though Hehman and the other new members knew what they wanted to do, going through with it wasn’t easy. 

“It was the most heart-wrenching decision I have ever made,” he said. At board meetings residents begged the board, many through tears, not to close their school. 

For longtime residents, losing the school seemed like another blow to Silver Grove’s identity. The town, just 10 miles southeast of Cincinnati, was formed in 1911 as a railroad town. The high school’s mascot was the Big Trains. In 2002, the city’s fire department merged into a county fire department, then in 2015 the city dissolved its police force and is now patrolled by the county police. 

“I think they just see more and more of these things leaving their community and the school was one thing that they still had. I do understand their concern,” said Kimber Fender, Campbell County school board member, whose district now includes Silver Grove.

The tension and anger wasn’t limited to board meetings, Hehman said. His house was egged twice and longtime neighbors refused to speak to him. 

Before the final vote, he began to doubt the plan.

“I was wavering. I was like, man, I can’t go through with this,” he said. “I cannot take my neighbors hating me this much.” 

Emotional process
Both school boards approved a merger agreement in February. The day after it was signed, Silver Grove’s superintendent, Dennis Maines, resigned to become a principal in Newport Independent. 

Veteran educator Jim Palm (pictured) was hired as interim superintendent for the remaining months of the school year to oversee the merger and close the district. 

“It’s the toughest job in education I ever had,” said Palm, who has worked in education for 40 years, including 23 as a superintendent. “It was like going through the grief process – first emotion, then anger, acceptance, and my job was to get people to acceptance.” 

It wasn’t unusual for Palm to find teachers crying in empty classrooms. 

“They didn’t know what their future was going to be,” he said. But with Palm’s help, every certified employee in Silver Grove found a new job in another district before the 2019-20 school year began. 

Palm choose to focus on the people, teachers, staff and students. He encouraged people on both sides of the merger to vent their anger and frustration to him and he would listen.

“I tried to use all my people skills until the end of the year for the students, because in this whole process there’s an education of students to do,” he said. 

Even typically joyous end of the school year celebrations such as prom, the last day of school and graduations were somber.

“They had those events, but they were all sad because they knew it was the last one,” Palm said. 

There was also more than 100 years of memorabilia that needed a new home. Palm helped find a home at the city building for the many trophies, while other memorabilia was given to alumni.  

“You have all this history, these families who worked together, grew up together, went to school together,” said Palm, who lives in Campbell County. “It’s very unique in that way.” 

And through it all, Palm was working with Campbell County to integrate Silver Grove into the district.

“Campbell County really bent over backwards to try to help,” he said. 

A learning process
Palm and Campbell County Superintendent David Rust worked together to figure out how to merge two districts, something that had been done only once in Kentucky in the past decade.

“There wasn’t anyone you could call to say how do you do this,” Palm said. Records had to be transferred, students had to be assigned to schools, needs of special education students had to be assessed, buildings needed insurance and thousands of other details had to be attended to, down to creating bus stops. 

There’s no manual for how to merge a school district, and every merger would likely present different challenges, Rust (pictured) said. 

“It was a learning process for sure and there’s not a whole lot of models out there that say this is how it goes,” Rust said. “There’s not really a road map and there’s not a game plan.” 

To gain insight, Rust talked to Mercer County Superintendent Dennis Davis and Wayne County Superintendent Wayne Roberts, both veterans of district mergers. He also talked to officials at the Kentucky Department of Education who asked Rust to track the activities and timelines so the district can better inform future merger participants.

“There were definitely some growing pains,” Rust said, “some bumps in the road as we progressed through it, but overall I think it went fairly smooth and I think the kids are pretty much settled in.” 

The district held open houses early on to allow students and parents to see their new schools and meet teachers, he said. With 5,000 students, the district has more people than live in Silver Grove, and each of Campbell County’s seven schools is bigger than Silver Grove’s K-12 school. 

Some Silver Grove parents worried about sending their children to what they considered a large district, Fender said. 

“You can understand a little bit why some parents felt like their kids might get lost in the crowd and they would not receive the kind of individualized attention they thought they were getting at Silver Grove because they knew every student and they knew their families,” she said. 

Other parents were worried about their students riding a bus for the first time. 

“The kids didn’t have experience riding school buses so there was a lot of trepidation of parents about getting them to be comfortable putting their kids on buses,” Rust said. “A lot of the kids were excited about getting on the bus but there was a lot of concern.” 

Mixed feelings
As part of the merger agreement, none of the Silver Grove board members joined Campbell’s board. Hehman voted himself out of office. Though some neighbors still refuse to talk to him, another neighbor told him his daughter is enjoying choir, something she couldn’t do at Silver Grove. 

“The people who were against us probably won’t see the benefits until two or three years from now,” he said.  

One Silver Grove parent who had been against the merger later told Fender how excited her son was to attend Crossroads Elementary, the Campbell County school about five miles away where most of Silver Grove’s elementary students now attend. 

“Some of the parents, once they actually got into the buildings and saw the resources that the kids would have that they had not had and met the teachers and could see the environment of the school, were very excited about it,” she said. “But there were others who insisted they would never send their kids to Campbell County no matter what and as far as I know at least some of them have not sent their kids there.”

The red brick building now owned by Campbell County remains empty. The district has yet to decide what to do with the school. But for Silver Grove residents, it a daily reminder of what their town has lost. 

But Fender hopes the residents will eventually see what they have gained.

“As far as the kids getting a good education, I certainly feel like that will be to their benefit over time as they continue with the district,” she said. “If they really take advantage of the course offerings and do dual credit at Northern Kentucky University and other things that they can do that to my knowledge were not available to them at Silver Grove.”
Top photo: Silver Grove students take a final exam on the the last day of school in May.
Middle photo: Silver Grove’s trophy case was displayed in the school’s hallway. Many of the trophies were moved to the city building while other memorabilia was given to alumni. 
Bottom photo: Many Silver Grove  students had teachers, staff and fellow students sign their T-shirt on the final day of school in May.

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