Could a new school district be created in Kentucky just as one is closing?

In addition to dealing with a state investigation that found cheating on statewide tests, the Floyd County Public Schools district faces the possibility of losing schools to a new independent district that is being discussed.

Prior to the Kentucky Department of Education’s release of a report on Monday about statewide testing violations at Betsy Layne Elementary School , Prestonsburg Mayor Les Stapleton had said he wanted to form an exploratory committee to study whether Prestonsburg should create its own independent school district, separating from Floyd County Schools.

Stapleton has been talking publicly about the idea at least since an April town hall meeting and before the testing violations were characterized by Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis as “cheating.”

Stapleton said he did not know anything about the state department of education’s investigative report dated Monday which said 2017 K-Prep test scores were invalidated at Betsy Layne Elementary. Stapleton told the Floyd County Chronicle and Times in a May 1 article that he simply wanted the best thing for Prestonsburg and that an independent district -- a school district that is separate from the county district -- would be open to students in Prestonsburg and surrounding areas.

“There’s no type of animosity or anything like that,” Stapleton told the Herald-Leader Tuesday about his exploration into breaking ties with Floyd County Public Schools. “I can’t say anything negative about them.”

Commissioner Lewis said Wednesday he didn’t have any problem with an exploratory committee being formed to talk about a new school district: “I don’t have concerns with citizens coming together and exploring the feasibility of doing that,“ he said.

“My main concern ... around school districts in parts of the state where there is population decline is whether or not the number of school districts is appropriate for the population, for the number of kids in an area,” said Lewis. “We are facing a situation not just in Eastern Kentucky but in some cases in Western Kentucky where ..there literally are not enough kids to support the number of schools districts that we have.”

In 2018, with a population of 35,845, Floyd County had lost more than nine percent of its population since the 2010 census, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

As Stapleton talks of opening a new independent school district, another in Kentucky is closing.

In February, the Silver Grove Independent school board voted to close and merge with the Campbell County School district in Northern Kentucky. The last day for Silver Grove students was Thursday and it officially closes June 30. That means Kentucky will have one fewer total school districts — down to 172-- and just 52 independent districts, down from 53.

Silver Grove Superintendent Jim Palm told the Herald-Leader that the district whose enrollment hovered around 200 did not have financial or academic problems when the decision was made by the school board to merge. One reason given was that the merger would give students in the Silver Grove district more opportunities, according to media reports.

Since 2006, Harrodsburg Independent merged with Mercer County, Providence with Webster County, and Monticello with Wayne County, according to a 2015 legislative research commission report on independent school districts. Palm said he was not aware of any new independent districts that had opened in the past several years and he thought Prestonsburg officials could face “a huge challenge politically” in getting approval to start a new independent district.

Stapleton told the Herald-Leader Tuesday that he did not know if it was feasible to start an independent school district and that’s why he wanted to put an exploratory committee together.

“I know nothing about running a school system, so we will find people who are knowledgeable and let them tell us what’s feasible and what’s not feasible,” he said. “I’ve got to get the right people in place. I’m not just going to go into this half-cocked.”

He said he did not know when such a committee might convene. Independent school districts have their own school boards.

Stapleton said he thought an independent school district would have a lot more options on several fronts, including curriculum.

Lewis and Eric Kennedy, director of governmental relations for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said generalizations usually can’t be made about independent school districts in Kentucky because the courses offered, their enrollment, finances, and other conditions vary across the state.

Independent school districts are on both ends of the spectrum academically, having both high and low test scores , a 2015 Legislative Research Commission Office of Education Accountability report on independent school districts said. Some independent school districts have faced challenges, however.

The 2015 Legislative Research Commission report said approximately one-third of the independent superintendents who submitted comments said independent school districts were “landlocked” because their boundaries do not expand with the cities in which they are located. Several superintendents, the report said, said the difference between independent school districts and city boundaries creates confusion for residents whose children can’t automatically attend the independent school because they purchased property located in the city limits but not within the independent school district boundaries.

Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, said her group would encourage the Prestonsburg community to evaluate the additional costs to adding an independent district to the county’s schools.

“Over the years there have been numerous examples, particularly in eastern Kentucky, of independent and county districts both struggling from a budget standpoint because of declining enrollment. Attention to enrollment projections in the county and the ability to sustain both a county and independent district will be important to support high-quality and adequately financed schools for each student,’’ Ramsey said.

Pikeville and Paintsville, which are near Prestonsburg, both have independent school districts. Pikeville Independent Superintendent Jerry Green -- whose district has students from seven other school districts including some who live in Floyd County -- said that his district with 1180 students is considered “the crown jewel” of the community.

“It’s just a special place,” said Green. He said the district had a diverse student body, high ACT scores and about 100 students graduating each year.

Stapleton told the Floyd County newspaper that a number of children who live in or near the city boundaries are traveling to other counties for school.

“You know, our attendance is declining. It has been declining for quite some time ... We have students going to different counties, and they’re able to take their state money with them. … When I watch two minivans load up with kids and leave the City of Prestonsburg to go to other school districts, it hurts me. It hurts me,” he was quoted as saying.

Stapleton told the Herald-Leader he did not know why students were leaving Floyd County Schools for other school districts. In the 2017-18 school year, the district had 5,553 students, according to the most recent records on the Kentucky Department of Education website.

Under state law, an independent school district generally has to have at least 200 students. Prestonsburg High School and Prestonsburg Elementary alone has a combined population of about 1200 students, according to Department of Education records.

Floyd Superintendent Danny Adkins told the Herald-Leader Tuesday that he is not concerned about the possible effort to start a new independent school district. He said this week that the district was going to fix the problems that led to the state testing investigation and to the invalidation of the 2017 K-Prep test scores at Betsy Layne.

“We are going to service the kids we have in Floyd County. We do a good job with it and we are going to continue to do that,” he said.

Adkins said about 400 students who live in Floyd County attend school in border counties, but he said the majority of those students never attended Floyd County schools because their parents work in other school districts such as Johnson and Pike and they were initially enrolled in those other districts.