Tuesday, February 25, 2003

1 school stays open; 2 close

Visalia parents criticize Kenton board action

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

INDEPENDENCE - Decisions on proposed school closings made Monday night elicited deeply different emotions in two tight-knit Northern Kentucky communities.

Parents and staff at A.J. Jolly Elementary School in California, Ky., were elated when the Campbell County Board of Education moved not to close the school at the end of this year.

"This is what the community and the staff fought so hard to achieve," Keith Daniels, who lives near the school, said after Monday night's board meeting. Daniels and his wife, Lisa, were among dozens of parents and community members who had lobbied to keep the school open.

"We feel good, and we're relieved the decision has been made" he said. "And there's no doubt all the hard work so many people did paid off tonight."

A.J. Jolly will remain open until a new elementary school is built elsewhere in the county. It will be merged with Alexandria Elementary at that time, a plan parents and staff had pushed school board member and administrators to consider.

Parents realize that Jolly, an aging school located along the Ohio River, will eventually have to close. But they disagreed with the district's plan to move the students first to Alexandria Elementary and then to the new school when it is completed, said Jolly principal Ann Painter.

The school will close early if it floods, which has happened in the past, Painter said.

"The parents fought hard because they love the school," said Painter, who has been principal 20 years. "And they made their voices heard."

But the scene was different at a Kenton County Board of Education meeting in Independence, where the board unanimously followed a recommendation from Superintendent Susan Cook to close two schools.

The Kenton Central Alternative School in Park Hills, which is for at-risk students, and Visalia Elementary in the rural southeastern corner of Kenton County, will close at the end of the school year. Students at both schools will be moved to other schools in the district.

More than 150 people attended the meeting, where some parents wept while others called for answers to questions about the closings that the board refused to answer.

While a number of parents and students were allowed to speak during the meeting, neither the board nor Cook would answer any of the direct questions posed to them.

"That was ridiculous," said Deanna Duncan, one of a number of parents who made emotional pleas to keep Visalia open. "I thought we lived in a democracy. Why couldn't they answer our questions?"

"By not answering questions," Jennifer Martin, a senior at Kenton Central, told the board, "you are not doing your job."

Cook said the board and administration are aware of the parents' concerns, which were expressed at earlier meetings. Those questions, she said, have been answered in writing.

"We are not going to get into a dialogue here," Cook told one parent.

"It was a very emotional decision," board member Karen Collins said after the meeting. "The schools have great parents and great teachers. We hope to start tomorrow on a good transition plan for all the kids involved."

During the meeting, Cook did say that largely because of less state funding, the board has had to make $3 million in cuts to balance its budget.

The district has said that closing Visalia, the smallest of the district's 12 elementary schools with 110 students, will save about $400,000.

"After considerable deliberation and study, it has been determined that it is neither efficient nor equitable to operate a full service elementary school with this population base," Cook said.

Closing Kenton Central will save another $620,455, Cook said.

State Sens. Jack Westwood, R-Crescent Springs, and Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, wrote Cook last week and asked her to delay the closings until the final state budget is passed.

Several parents at Monday's meeting also asked the board to reconsider closing a school that has small class sizes and high parent involvement, a place many described as a focal point of the entire Visalia community.

"Can you really say you are acting in the best interests of the children ... with this decision?" said Renae Magee, a Visalia parent.

E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com

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