State to meet with Clark County school board members about facilities plan

A complex Clark County Public Schools facilities plan that calls for closing several outmoded schools and moving students to new locations continues to generate controversy six years after the school board approved it.

Things came to a head last month, when a new majority on the Clark County Board of Education voted not to spend money to reconfigure two schools, a step intended to prepare for implementation of the facilities plan in the fall.

Clark board members already had ordered a one-year delay in what is perhaps the plan's most controversial provision — merging the county's two middle schools.

Now, state Education Commissioner Terry Holliday has called Clark school board representatives to meet with state education officials in Frankfort on Wednesday to talk about the impasse. Holliday previously has advised Clark board members that the facilities plan remains in effect and that they must go ahead with it unless the document is amended.

Michael Kuduk, chairman of the Clark school board, said last week that he assumed state officials would tell board representatives Wednesday that they must proceed. But he said that he has a problem with the plan and that it is unpopular with many residents.

"I don't know what the state will say, but I think they can put a lot of financial pressure on us and force us to make decisions one way or another," Kuduk said. "I think that's probably the way things are going to end up."

He noted a fear that the Clark board might be required to repay more than $16 million the state has provided to support the facilities plan.

The plan, intended to save money and improve learning, calls for a complex series of steps, each dependent on the other.

In the fall, Clark County's George Rogers Clark High School will close, its students moving to a new county high school that will keep the same name. Conkwright Middle School will move into the old high school building, where it eventually will be joined by Clark Middle School, with the middle schools merging.

Meanwhile, Fannie Bush and Central Elementary schools will close in the fall, with their students moving into the new Justice Elementary School. Two more elementaries, Pilot View and Trapp, would close next year as a part of the plan.

There are other steps as well, including the conversion of Conkwright Middle and Clark Middle schools to elementaries.

Many Clark County residents didn't like the plan when it was approved in 2007, including provisions calling for closing small, rural elementary schools. At one point the controversy sparked a lawsuit by a citizens group opposed to the plan.

Things eventually calmed down — at least on the surface.

But things heated up again in August, when parents began to realize that Clark County's middle schools were scheduled to merge in 2013 under the facilities plan. The plan became an issue during last fall's hotly contested election for three seats on the school board, two of which were held by incumbents. Beth Griffith, Michael McGowan and Ashley Ritchie won the election, and the incumbents were ousted.

Since January, McGowan and Ritchie have joined Kuduk to form a majority that has been critical of the facilities plan. It was their votes last month that blocked funding to reconfigure Clark Middle School and the old George Rogers Clark high school in preparation for the plan's implementation.

Griffith, who was on the losing side of that vote, said she thought the re-emergence of the facilities plan surprised many residents who hadn't given it much thought since the 2007 controversy.

"When the middle school principals informed parents last summer that there was going to be a merger, a lot of people were like, 'What are you talking about?' I think that many never believed that it would actually happen," Griffith said. "That's when it all started to gather momentum."

Kuduk said that, other than delaying the merger of the middle schools, none of the school board's recent votes would prevent the facilities plan from being completed. But he said residents have many reservations.

Some still oppose the closing of the elementary schools, even though many of the buildings are small and outmoded. Others fear that combining the middle schools would harm academics and athletics. And there are concerns about renovating the old high school next year and the health hazards it might pose for students who would be there while the work is being done.

Kuduk, a pediatrician, said it was "not an acceptable risk," noting that the building, which dates to 1965, probably contains asbestos.

"The fact that the renovation would be going on with students in the building, I've been getting lots of comments from constituents on that," he said. "Another thing is that many people in our community openly question spending a total of $38 million to renovate a 48-year-old building."

Kuduk said he understood that state officials think the facilities plan should go forward. But residents' wishes should be considered too, he said.

"The thing is, we had an election this past fall, and two of the winning candidates basically ran on a platform of not merging the middle schools and trying to keep the smaller schools open," Kuduk said.

"I think the state has an interest in closing smaller school for financial reasons and whatever else. But I feel my primary responsibility is to the people who elected me to represent them."

Kuduk and Judy Hicks will represent the school board at Wednesday's meeting. Hicks, who was a member of the board when it adopted the facilities plan in 2007, was out of the state and could not be reached for comment.

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