Bad roof, ‘unbearable cold’ and rodents. Repairs fail to save Eastern Kentucky school from closing.

Alice Whitaker, niece of founder Alice Slone, stood in front of the Cordia School in 2005. Whitaker had hoped that a reinspection of the school would find that violations noted by the state had been “addressed and corrected.”
Alice Whitaker, niece of founder Alice Slone, stood in front of the Cordia School in 2005. Whitaker had hoped that a reinspection of the school would find that violations noted by the state had been “addressed and corrected.” LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

The state education commissioner has withdrawn approval for Knott County students to attend a school that is struggling with problems ranging from a collapsed roof and inadequate heating to mouse dung in the kitchen ceiling.

The decision by Commissioner Stephen L. Pruitt means more than 200 students will have to leave the Cordia school at Lotts Creek by Feb. 2.

An organization called the Lotts Creek Community School, Inc., owns Cordia. The campus opened in 1933 as a settlement school in what was then a relatively isolated area in Eastern Kentucky.

The Knott County school system leases Cordia for $1 a year and provides teachers and other staff members to work there.

The school has 224 students in grades kindergarten through 12, Knott County schools Superintendent Kim King said Thursday.

Of those, 81 are in the high school.

King said that she and district officials were making arrangements to switch Cordia’s elementary students to two other schools closest to their homes, probably Emmalena Elementary or Carr Creek Elementary. Officials are planning some activities to acquaint the students with their new schools.

The high school’s 81 students will be kept together, with officials trying to lease space for them high school at the Hazard Community Technical College campus in Hindman, which has empty classrooms.

King said Cordia’s employees will be divided among other schools and no one will lose a job.

Parents will receive a letter Friday with more details, she said.

Alice Whitaker, director of Lotts Creek Community School, declined comment Thursday on Pruitt’s decision.

State records show that inspections found a number of problems at Cordia last year, including that the roof of the auditorium was about to collapse; poor water pressure; electrical safety violations; food-safety violations such as leaking canned goods; and rodent “fecal matter” above a suspended ceiling in the kitchen.

Pruitt, who has to approve the contract between Knott County and the owner of Cordia, notified local officials he was prepared to order students moved from Cordia if repairs weren’t made.

In a letter issued Wednesday, Pruitt said several problems that the Knott County system could address have been fixed.

However, the public school system is not allowed to spend money on structural problems at the Cordia facility, said Tim Crawford, attorney for the Knott County school board.

And Pruitt said Cordia has not made sufficient progress in fixing problems and that he still has concerns about the safety of students and staffers at Cordia.

He said in the letter that a follow-up inspection on Jan. 11 found several problems, including a back-up generator at the school still needing repair and a heating unit on the roof that was out of service because of collapsed roof trusses.

That meant the heat was out in some areas. The school was using space heaters, but some staffers said the situation was “almost unbearable” during the recent cold snap, Pruitt said.

He added that inspectors again found animal droppings above the kitchen ceiling because a hole in the drywall hadn’t been fixed and that a sprinkler system at the school leaked in late December. That leak should have set off an alarm to the fire department, but didn’t, the commissioner said.

Some staff members think the school’s owner hadn’t paid for maintenance on the alert system, Pruitt said.

The commissioner also raised a concern about Lotts Creek Community School not carrying insurance on the Cordia facility.

The lack of coverage, which appeared to date to October, either showed Lotts Creek couldn’t afford insurance or companies weren’t willing to write a policy covering the damaged building, Pruitt said.

Schools are required to have insurance.

Pruitt said in his letter to Whitaker, King and Knott County school board Chairman Randy Combs that Whitaker had not provided information on estimates on the cost of shoring up structural damage at the school, on the time needed to complete repairs, or on whether Lotts Creek can afford to do the work.

Pruitt said he understood the emotional cost of uprooting students in the middle of a school year, but that the need for safety outweighed emotion and the situation was too serious to wait.

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