Thwarting the threat of consolidation is a challenge facing a declining number of small school districts in Arkansas, as enrollment numbers decrease and schools across the state continue to merge.
In 2004, the Arkansas Legislature approved a law that forced school districts with fewer than 350 students to consolidate with other districts.
The Guy-Perkins Public School District ended the 2012 school year with 406 students.
On Thursday, Superintendent Brian Cossey reported that number had grown to 425 students enrolled at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, representing about a 5 percent increase over last year.
While that may not sound like much, in a town of about 800 people, the increase is more than enough to help its residents rest a little easier at night.
The school district serves as the hub for much of the community’s activities. Keeping the school open and running became a concern among parents and faculty at the end of the 2012 school year, as rumors circulated that enrollment had dropped to about 380.
“I knew that we weren’t quite that low, but we were still at a low enough number that people were concerned,” said school Superindentent Brian Cossey.
The state allocates funding to schools based on each district’s student population — about $10,000 per child. State officials projected that in a school of less than 350 students, there wouldn’t be enough money to keep a district operational.
The year’s-end enrollment number at Guy-Perkins, coupled with publicity surrounding the passing of the Arkansas Public School Choice Act in the spring, was enough to cause concern among the school’s officials.
When a head count at the beginning of the week revealed that enrollment at Guy-Perkins had grown, Cossey said he breathed a sigh of relief.
The superintendent is beginning his fifth year at the Guy-Perkins School District, having served four years in the school as K-12 principal. He was chosen in February to be superintendent following the resignation of David Westenhover, and received a two-year contract effective July 1.
Cossey said he’s met with the city’s mayor and council members to stress the importance of implementing a strategic plan to draw more families to the school district in an effort to keep enrollment on the rise.
His ideas include a greater selection of housing and more commerce in the community.
“I’ve been pushing to set some realistic goals — I’d like to see us hit 450 in three to five years; 500 in eight to 10,” he said. The new enrollment number is a sign the school is on the right track, Cossey said, but it’s important, he believes, to highlight the school’s opportunities and successes.
Cossey said when he first began working in the district, the school had no parental organizations. Now parents are active supporters and participants in the school’s parent-teacher organization and the booster club. Students involved in the FFA, FBLA and FCCLA organizations have celebrated recent successes in state and national competitions. Benchmark test scores returned at or above state averages. Officials are working to implement new forms of technology. Six new employees — including a school nurse, a junior high boy’s basketball coach, two sixth-grade teachers, a second-grade teacher and a K-12 assistant principal — were all hired beginning with the 2013-14 school year.
And it is the teachers and staff at the school that really set the district apart, Cossey said.
Food service worker Marcelle Fielder will celebrate her 90th birthday next week. Fielder has been with the school for over 30 years. In May, the school board voted to rename the school’s dining facilities the Marcelle Fielder Cafetorium. Fielder is a testament to the dedication of the school’s faculty, Cossey said.
“I am in my fourteenth year of education and I have never seen a staff more caring or more in-tune to the needs of its students,” he explained. “If they see a need, they address it.”
The challenge of keeping enrollment numbers up is at the forefront of the district’s efforts. The goal, Cossey said, is to continue to raise the bar.
“We are one of the smallest school districts in the state ... but if we can continue to gain momentum in our extracurricular activities and push the bar academically, we’ll be in real good shape,” Cossey said.
The school’s five-member board of education meets the second Thursday of each month. A school board election to fill the Zone 4 position to be vacated by board Secretary Greg Hooten will be held Sept. 17 in the lobby of the school’s gymnasium. Candidates for the position are Charlotte Hutchcraft and James Rooney. Early voting will begin Sept. 11.