By a count of 6-4, the Winn Parish School Board voted against the recommendation of the superintendent to transfer 101 middle school and high school students at Atlanta High School to Winnfield Schools. The action took place in special session June 13 when perhaps 300 people…students, parents, citizens, board members and staffers…gathered in the WSHS auditorium to voice opinions and hear the vote.
Supt. Alfred Simmons explained that his recommendation gives him no pleasure but the Winn system faces the longterm problem of many rural areas, that of a dwindling student census. State MFP funding is directly tied to the student head count. There are 900 fewer students here today (currently 1,853) that there were 20 years ago, he said. MFP funding is down $1.3 million over the past four years alone.
“Every year, the board works to match resources with our students,” Simmons said. With only 200 students at AHS, the per pupil cost of running that school is higher than any other in the parish. “We are at a point where revenues and expenditures do not match up.” He explained that personnel costs, with salaries and all related benefits, consume about 70% of the total budget. He suggested that there should be slots for any affected ASH teachers and employees in other schools through attrition.
Following the superintendent’s comments, an impassioned yet orderly session allowed citizens a brief time to express their views. An overall picture was painted of a small rural school that offers quality education in a kinder, gentler environment for students. The school and community were described as “family.” Principal Wendy Miller vowed that AHS staffers do “whatever it takes to educate our children.”
The board heard that while Atlanta supporters understand the dire financial situation the board faces, they were urged not to rush but to consider all options. Do what is best for the children. Will this action solve the system’s problem? It was not clear how long the board had mulled this course of action, for while some said it had been discussed in session for some time, others said this was news to them.
Concerns were also voiced that the shift might actually exacerbate the problem of student decline if some decide on home schooling, dropping out for a GED or going to another parish. Bullying in a larger school setting was cited as an issue.
As to the board members, the vote came as a choice between “emotions versus financial reality. None are taking this lightly.” Several said they think “this is a rush job” and “if one suffers, we all suffer.”
Lance Underwood made reference to the consolidation of Sikes with Dodson. Consolidation has been an ongoing process as Winn’s school population has declined for decades. In recent recall there was not only Sikes but also St. Maurice, Winnfield Kindergarten, and Winnfield Intermediate. Historically, there were dozens more, closed and consolidated into the schools that exist today. Yet the population and student numbers continue to decline.
When President Joe Lynn Browning called for the vote, it was 4 supporting the superintendent’s recommendation and 6 against. Further meetings were planned to search for budget options.