BROOKESMITH — The gym was hot, and emotions were hotter Wednesday night as Brookesmith community members expressed anger, frustration and sorrow at the possibility the small Brookesmith school district will be unable to have school next year.
The issue: enrollment is down by about 35 students, resulting in a state shortfall of $350,000. The district — which currently has about 140 students — has cut its budget by about $400,000 and eliminated four teaching jobs. The district has the funds to remain operational for the rest of the school year, but next year is a question, Superintendent Guy Birdwell and school board president Terry Been told about 150 community members who packed the un-airconditioned gym.
Students and teachers were among community members who listened to what Birdwell and all seven school board members had to say, and fired numerous questions at Birdwell and the board during a public meeting that lasted nearly two hours. Audience members, Birdwell and school board members passed around a single microphone so speakers could be heard over a sound system.
There were no definitive answers on the district’s future, but it was clear the community is passionate about the school district and will fight for its future. Community members shouted out ideas including having fund-raisers and volunteering to help in the classrooms to make up for reduced staff.
“Finance is the main thing right now,” Been said. “Finances are driven by the number of students that we have. … we’re still looking at every avenue we can.”
Factors that caused the district’s situation include its deficiencies in academics the year before last, which cost the district about $50,000 when it was placed under a conservator and a state plan known as a personal service provider. The district has been released from both. There are also maintenance issues, equipment is old and the air conditioning is going out, Been said.
Birdwell took the microphone, saying the district overspent its budget in the 2014-’15 school year — the year before Birdwell became superintendent — by $250,000. “The state came in and made us do a bunch of stuff that we had never had to do, that we didn’t have budgeted,” Birdwell said.
After the district was released from conservatorship and the personal service provider, Birdwell said, he thought that would help enrollment. But Birdwell said that didn’t happen, and spending money to advertise and tout the district’s advantages in an effort to bring in transfer students yielded few results.
“After meeting with our business manager, it became clear our future was in question,” Birdwell said.
The state recommended consolidation, and Birdwell and Beam had consolidation talks with the Rochelle and Lohn districts, but Rochelle school officials opted out. Birdwell said he decided it was time to let Brookesmith school employees know what was happening.
Birdwell said he has also met with the Brownwood and Bangs superintendents and discussed consolidating with one of those districts.
Several community members expressed anger that it seemed the decision had already been made to close the Brookesmith district. A speaker asked board members to say if they are committed to trying to keep the district open, and all seven answered affirmatively.
The speaker said she hears “negativity” from Birdwell and asked Birdwell if he is committed to keeping the district open. Birdcall said he is committed to doing what is best for the district.
Community members asked about other options including selling off property and combining classes to further reduce staff. Birdwell and several teachers answered, saying that would mean larger classes, negating the advantage Brookesmith school officials are proud of: small class size.
It would also mean academics would suffer, several teachers said, as teachers would struggle to teach subjects to different grade levels in a combined classroom. That could put the district back in academic trouble with the state, teachers said.
Other ideas: appealing to foundations and billionaires including Bill Gates and even Donald Trump for help.
Several high school students took turns with the microphone, making emotional statements about how important it is for them to graduate from Brookesmith High School.
Near the end of the meeting, a man asked a question that Been said couldn’t be answered Wednesday night.
“Is this school going to keep on going?” the man asked.
A few minutes later, a woman called out, “we’re not closing because this community doesn’t want us to close.”
A man called out, “Sounds to me like we’ve got a community that cares. Y’all put a hold on shutting the school down. We’ve got to try.”