Concerns brew about future of Jackson Independent School

Friends of the Jackson Independent School were shocked when the small K-12 school ran short of money and needed a line of credit to get through last fiscal year.

Determined to prevent that happening again this year, they organized a whirlwind fund drive which has raised about $265,000 for the school since January. That includes $200,000 in coal severance tax money from the city of Jackson and Breathitt County.

But supporters are still worried.

An agreement with the Breathitt County Schools that allows about 190 county students to attend Jackson Independent will be up for renewal after next school year. The county students make up nearly half of the Jackson school's total enrollment of about 400.

With school funding tight, Jackson supporters fear that the county schools might try to sharply cut the number of students, or even end the agreement.

Either would be another financial blow for Jackson Independent. And many supporters fear that could be a prelude to a merger of Jackson Independent with the Breathitt County Schools, which the state now manages.

"Merger is not something we are even considering," says Betsy Douthitt, president of the private Foundation For Jackson Independent School Inc., which spearheaded the recent fund drive.

"We're a small school, but our test scores are great, and we're in the top 25 in the state," Douthitt said. "But here they are trying to get us to merge with the county district, which the state has taken over and is in crisis. Why should we want to do that?"

Nobody has officially proposed merger. But fears continue as Jackson residents watch the ongoing, state-supported merger of the Wayne County Schools with the small Monticello Independent School District, which, like Jackson, has had financial problems.

That's why Jackson supporters think that the upcoming renegotiation of the non-resident-student contract with the Breathitt Schools could be crucial.

"We're hearing that they (the Breathitt Schools) are not going to negotiate," Douthitt said. "We think the county school board would vote to do a new contract, but they are managed by the state now."

The state named Larry Hammond to manage the Breathitt Schools in December after superintendent Arch Turner went to prison in a federal vote-buying case.

Hammond said it's "probably too early" to predict whether Breathitt County would try to further restrict the student agreement when it comes up for renewal. But he noted that both districts are losing population and that budgets are tight.

"The agreement is restrictive now," he said. "But it's likely to continue or become even more restrictive. It all depends on how we end up."

Jackson Independent Superintendent Tim Spencer traces his school's recent financial troubles to declining state and federal support. The successful fundraising campaign has offset that, at least for now, but Jackson Independent probably will need more outside financial help in the future, Spencer said.

"The community has been very supportive, and I think we'll still need some private funding ... to where we can continue to be a viable school district," he said.

Spencer said he doesn't see the Jackson Independent School Board initiating any move toward a merger now.

"We're trying to maintain sustainability," he insisted.

If Jackson Independent proposed a merger, the Breathitt Schools would entertain the idea, said Hammond, who added Jackson Independent's long-term financial future isn't bright, despite recent fundraising success.

"Jackson Independent has done a good job, but in the end it has to work financially," he said. "And it's going to be a bigger and bigger struggle with the passage of time."

Douthitt admits Jackson Independent School faces issues, but said parents and supporters will push ahead.

"Our problem is we have such a small base to draw from," she said. "Our city school district is far smaller than the city limits of Jackson. So, we are totally landlocked, student-wise and taxbase-wise."

Some Jackson School backers say they think Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday would like to see all independent districts in Kentucky merged with county districts. Holliday says that's not true.

"But I do believe that independents which are financially insolvent and don't have a hope of maintaining themselves ... must look to merger," Holliday said. "We simply don't have the money to bail out these systems anymore."