By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer
VISALIA - Parents in this rural southern Kenton County community aren't going to let their school go down without a fight.
Citing low enrollment at the community's elementary school and a $6 million cut in the district's state funding, Kenton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Susan Cook has recommended that Visalia Elementary - with enrollment of 130 the smallest of the district's 12 elementary schools - be temporarily closed at the end of this school year.
The Kenton County Board of Education is scheduled to vote Feb. 24 on the school closing as part of a cost reduction package.
"Our district budget committee has analyzed the operation of all departments and schools in the district and has recommended budget reductions in various areas in the system," Cook said in a six-page letter distributed last week in Visalia to answer parent questions about the district's plans.
"The education of all children continues to be our highest priority," Cook said. "Given enrollment trends and economic limitations, the proposed temporary closing and transfer of students ensure the most `efficient and effective' way to educate all children."
Parents like Suzi Bach, 33, whose daughter is a Visalia Elementary third-grader, is unmoved by Cook's rationale and angered at her recommendation to close the school.
"What we have at Visalia is what schools are supposed to be about," Bach said. "Our parents are active, our teachers and staff are excellent in giving lots of personal attention to the kids. Our community is built around the school. And we're going to fight to keep it open for our students, our teachers but mostly for our kids."
About 60 parents gathered Wednesday night at the Visalia Fire Department to plot their strategy in a campaign to convince the board of education that the school should remain open.
They plan to write letters and make phone calls not only to board of education members but also to state lawmakers to plead for more state funding for education as well as help in their efforts to keep the school open.
The parents say they will emphasize the value of a community school, the personal attention students receive, the active base of parent volunteers and the pride Visalia takes in the school.
Kathy Patton and her husband, Eric, have two children at the school, one in first grade and one in fifth grade. Eric volunteers as a Homework Buddy, a program through which volunteers help students with homework.
"Why take our kids out of this environment?" Patton said. "We know money from the state is tight, but the district should find other places to cut funding rather than close a school that kids and parents care so much about. Generations of families in this community sent their kids to school here. That shouldn't be taken away."
Peter Lefaivre, an assistant superintendent, said in an interview Thursday that the district has cut the budget in other places and closing the school temporarily has not been an easy decision.
"This is very painful for all of us," Lefaivre said. "But we've done everything possible to address questions of how to deal with the (budget) shortfall."
According to Cook's letter, the district has cut $174,000 in transportation and maintenance and $1.6 million from various district support services.
Lefaivre said closing the school would save $433,700 a year. He also said students will receive the same type of personal attention and strong academic programs at three other small elementary schools Visalia students will attend next year - Piner, Ryland Heights and White's Tower elementary schools.
"Those are three of our five smallest elementary schools," he said. "They are all in southern Kenton County and have quality staff and programs."
Lefaivre said in making the recommendation to close Visalia the administration studied the "equity" of keeping the school open.
Enrollment at Visalia is 130 this year, but is expected to drop next year to 110. With that number of students the district's per-pupil cost would be $7,737 compared to a school of 500 students, where the cost is $3,599.
When projected enrollment can reach 300, the district will consider reopening the school, Lefaivre said.
But parents claim the district's enrollment projections are off, that the growth of southern Kenton County and new developments planned in the area are not being taken into account. They also are skeptical of the district's portrayal of the closing as temporary.
"They can tell us the closing is temporary, but we know better," said Jane Moore, 34, the mother of a fourth grader. "If they close it after this year, it will never open again."
The relationship between the community and the administration is somewhat strained because of the way the administration handled a public meeting on the closing held last week at the school.
In a Jan. 24 letter to parents announcing the meeting, Cook said the administration "would welcome this opportunity to answer any questions you may have as well as address your concerns."
Patton said she and other parents assumed that meant they could ask questions and receive answers at the meeting.
But Lefaivre said the parents misunderstood the letter "by taking it literally." The administration's plan was to hear the questions and concerns and then provide answers in the written document that was distributed a day later.
"We couldn't answer all the questions on the spot," he said. "We wanted to provide very clear ... well-researched answers."
But parents were taken aback by the administration's posture and upset they were not given more answers at the meeting.
"That's not the way to treat people," Patton said. "We're talking about our children, and we deserved to get the answers to our questions."
Parents plan to turn out for the Feb. 24th meeting.
"We love our school," Moore said. "My daughter struggled at (another) school, but she is doing great here. To me that's worth standing up for."
Kenton County is not the only district dealing with money woes because of a projected state budget deficit of $400 million that has forced cuts in funding:
Campbell County may close its smallest elementary, A.J. Jolly, and may make other cuts in staff and program.
Fort Thomas schools are asking voters for a tax increase in a March 4 special election.
Several schools - including Boone County, Beechwood, Newport and Erlanger-Elsmere - may also have to cut budgets because of less money coming in from the state.
MORE: CROWLEY: Visalia's perfection leaves it ripe for state to pluck
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