Jefferson Elementary School Could Close By Christmas

Nov 15, 2016

Jefferson County Elementary School
Credit Lynn Hatter / WFSU News

The Jefferson County School District will soon shutter its only elementary school. That’s the recommendation from a state financial oversight board.

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 Full Story: The oversight committee is giving Jefferson County’s new superintendent two weeks to come with a school transition plan and budget for the current school year. It rejected one finance plan saying it doesn’t go far enough to address the district’s woes. Incoming superintendent Mary Ann Arbulu tried to negotiate with the group for more time.

“My ask for this meeting is that this board, and the state board, give me the time, as superintendent-elect, to the January meeting," she said.

The board wants a report by the end of the month. Arbulu was elected this month but doesn’t take office until the 22nd with a finance plan submitted by the 30th. The board made clear any plan will have to include a school merger. But that won’t be easy. Closing the district’s only elementary school is being met with community opposition. Jefferson School Board Chairman Shirley Washington says the board is being left out of talks about the district’s future.

“I would certainly appreciate it if when Ms. Linda Champion and Herschel Lyon talk about any concerns about Jefferson County, please talk to the Superintendent and Chairman of the Board.”

Champion is Deputy Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education and Lyon is Chancellor of K-12 schools.

Washington accuses Arbulu of spreading misinformation about the future of the elementary school.  Outgoing Superintendent Al Cooksey said Arbulu’s move to jump into the conversation before her official term starts has created tension.

“I’m a going to assist her in any way we can. Ms. Washington pointed out she’s is upset about the communication thing…some things we learned today that we didn’t know we needed to get done, the budget issue, they said they’re not going to approve out budget," he said.

When it comes to school closure and consolidation, Cooksey said, "that will be a heavy lift and the community is not ready for that.”

The conversation is now shifting to mid-year layoffs and school closure and merger. The district is still running a deficit and has no budget for the current year. The elementary school is more than 40 years old and has asbestos and mold problems. Arbulu says the oversight board has made its position clear. It won’t recommend a plan to the state board of education that doesn’t include a financially sound budget, and school closure and that has to be done by the end of the month. The timeline is short Arbulu is certain she can get it done.

“The good news is that I have a finance background. I’m a former school board member and this is not a new map for me. So I have some experience to draw on to put this budget together in the way they need it.”

Jefferson’s school board will still have to approve any plan, but Arbulu says the closure of Jefferson Elementary school is near-certain. The district has only 700 students remaining, and has been crippled by poor academic and financial performance for years. Students at the Elementary School would be sent to the Jefferson Middle-High School, which has plenty of room, but doesn’t have playgrounds or recreational space for younger kids. 

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Original Story: In addition to planning a transition of students from Jefferson Elementary school into the middle-high school, Mary Ann Arbulu also needs to come up with a budget for the current fiscal year. The district was put under state financial oversight three months ago. Arbulu says she’s confident she can get it done:

"The good news is I have a finance background," she says. "I’m a former school board member, so this is not a new map. I have some experience to draw on so I can put this together in the way they need it.” 

Elementary schoolers would be moved into the middle-high school mid school year. But the move is unpopular in the county.  And Arbulu has little time. She doesn’t take office until the 22nd, and her budget and school transition plan are due to the state by the 30th. The Jefferson School District has about 700 students left and has faced both financial and academic problems for years.

This story will be updated later on.