There will be no easy answer as the Winn Parish School Board struggles to match costs against revenues for a balanced budget for the fast-approaching 2023-24 school year.
The board rejected by a 4-6 vote in a special session on June 13 the recommendation by Supt. Alfred Simmons to transfer students grades 5-12 from Atlanta High School to Winnfield schools. Yet personnel costs remain the key factor in reaching a budget by the deadline, and the Atlanta issue will be back on the agenda at the board’s July 3 meeting, it was determined at the board’s June 26 committee session. President Joe Lynn Browning announced that he will determine by week’s end if that meeting will be in the board office or in the WSHS auditorium.
Board members heard that the state’s Minimum Foundation funding is based on student population which has been on the decline in Winn for decades. That figure does not change whether a system has one school or 12, one observed. It is the duty of the superintendent to propose a budget, for the board to approve a budget, and for schools to implement the plan.
Following the earlier rejection of the Atlanta plan, Simmons came back at the committee session with an alternative plan of personnel cuts that would see a reduction of three at WSHS, three at WMS, and two at each of the other schools. The superintendent anticipated that this could be accomplished through traditional end-of-year attrition.
Leading the discussion was Personnel & Salary Committee chairman Lacey McManus who said “We’ve had more time to look over information, research, and talk. Here we are. The financial information we have speaks for itself. We must make adjustments. When we take money from the taxpayers of this state, we have to spend it wisely. One question I’ve heard is if we need to consolidate one school, then why not the whole system? We have to deal with what is now.”
Amber Cox told the board that closing the Atlanta school will not solve the problem of declining school enrollment. Simmons replied that the action is a response to the decline rather than a remedy. “We need a better plan. We need to take care of our students,” Cox retorted. Harry Scott echoed those thoughts, noting that “the board is supposed to be working for the kids. We are more divided than I’ve ever seen.”Steve Vines said, “Any time you kill a school, you kill a community.” But he also argued that when high per-student costs of a small school pull funding from other schools, it’s unfair. He added that the limited course offerings at a small school (he mentioned vocational training) puts its graduates at a disadvantage.
“The board needs to act now. Principals can’t be kept waiting to see what they’ll do when school starts.”Simmons concluded that he understands the benefits of locating schools in parish communities. But with today’s numbers, “we’ve maintained them as long as we can.” The meeting room was filled with visitors but since no actual business was conducted, there was no public comments section on the agenda. “But now would be the time for interested parties to contact their board members,” he advised as the session ended.