Polk County Director of Schools Dr. James Jones spent a few moments Tuesday evening enjoying a positive evaluation from board of education members, then launched a discussion into challenges facing the small rural school district.
"This is the most positive review I've had in 13 years," a grateful Jones told board members.
After the meeting, he expressed his appreciation of the board, and emphasized it is a little different than other Polk County school boards he has worked with.
"This is a very dynamic group," he said. "They are very active, and involved, and they ask questions concerning our school system, students and staff."
Jones emphasized the involvement is more than just being school board members. Two board members (Jason Lamb and Robby Cole) are SROs at Polk and Copper Basin high schools, respectively, and Shawn Pritchard's wife is an assistant principal.
This involvement was also emphasized during Tuesday's discussion, when board member Stan Howard made a motion that simple policy be established to increase communication from administration to the board.
Howard's motion was prompted by a recent federal mandate that a new soccer field must be put in at Polk County High, a Title 9 requirement. Board members said they wish to receive up-front information on all legal matters.
Jones said this has been a tough year for Polk County schools, despite many positives.
"I have a great (administrative) staff, and we have some great teachers, and a great school board," Jones said.
In praising teachers, Jones said when they take a fifth-grade student and raise him or her to a sixth-grade level, "they are doing their job. When they raise them two levels (to the seventh grade), they are exceeding expectations. We have teachers who are doing that," he said.
Among this year's challenges was the fact Jones and his staff were forced to cut the 2017-18 budget, including some teaching positions.
The reduction was not in local funding, which is only a small percentage of financing needed for Polk County schools, but state funding based on Average Daily Attendance.
"We lost 70 students (which equates to more than $500,000 in state funding)," Jones said.
Although this was a huge blow to Polk County's school funding, it could have been worse.
"There is a trend statewide, that is greatly impacting school districts, especially small, rural districts," said Jones. That trend is home schooling. Of the 70 students Polk County lost, Jones said almost all were to home schooling.
He and his staff have taken steps to offset this trend, with the start of an Innovative Learning program, which allows them more freedom than the traditional classroom setting.
There are 61 students enrolled in Innovative Learning classes. Jones said if they weren't offered, a majority of these students would have elected to be home-schooled. That would have increased Polk County's loss of state funding to near $1 million.
The current attraction of home school is less restrictions and conceived conveniences, for students, parents, and families.
The situation is so critical for rural Polk County, and other communities across the state, that Jones recently made a trip to Nashville to talk with legislators representing Polk County. He was attempting to emphasize the need for additional state funding, especially for brick and mortar.
"They expressed their support, and they were very receptive," said Jones. This does not guarantee increased funding will be forthcoming, anytime soon.
In addition to an increase in home schooling, Jones and board members discussed other factors which have contributed to the plight of Polk County schools.
Howard mentioned the fact some students are being transported by their parents, or other family members, to Cleveland and Athens.
"Due to the age and condition of our older facilities, they would rather their children attend better schools in those communities," said Howard.
Howard's assertion is supported by the fact Polk County recently lost approximately 100 students in its antiquated elementary/middle school facilities, but at the same time gained 100 students at the two high schools, both relatively new and modern facilities
Polk County is planning to build a new elementary or middle school, or a combination complex, in Benton.
This past year the county purchased a tract of property adjacent to Polk County High School for the school(s), but does not have construction funds available.
Jones reiterated the current challenges he sees for the school system.
"Over the past five years, there have been new standards, tests and evaluations, which have been tough on our teachers and our school system, " said Jones. "And, home schooling is causing the bottom to fall out of public education. There is a whole new subculture regarding home school, and no one hates it more than me."
Board members agreed there is a need to communicate this information to Polk County residents, describing it as "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly."
"Usually, our people will understand, if they get all the information," added Howard.
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