The Stokes County School Board will hold a public hearing on the possible closure of Francisco Elementary School at 3 p.m. on July 12 at the Francisco Community Center. The hearing could be the final step the board needs to take before voting to close the school at its July 20 meeting.
The board agreed to set the meeting after hearing from representatives from the Francisco community who packed the room Monday night to offer plans to help keep the school open.
Texie Jessup told the board the school was an integral part of the community, responsible for their sense of identity.
She said the community was asking the board to consider keeping the board open for the next school year while community members worked with the board to create a sustainable model for the school.
“We envision a thriving rural community that offers small, locally-owned businesses, affordable housing, after-school and full-day child care and small centrally located school,” she said. “We also want to provide life-long learning opportunities for our adult and senior population through evening and weekend classes.”
Jessup highlighted a number of efforts the community had made in recent years to help the school including providing tutoring and offering help with writing grants. She said in the future the community would also like to help with maintenance and repairs, and recommended the school board consider leasing out unused space in the school for after-school services, daycare and other needs in the community.
“A well maintained small school can operate effectively with lower costs,” she said.
Nick Watson provided more details of the community’s proposal for keeping the school open.
He said the community wanted to provide increased tutoring assistance to the school at an estimated value of $11,000 per year, community led maintenance and repairs, help seeking out corporate sponsors, facilitating growth of youth-based community programs like Boy Scouts, working with the county to develop new jobs in the area, and experienced grant writing.
He also suggested several cost saving measures that could be set up at the school.
“One of the innovations we have discussed was a variation on the ‘school within an school’ model , which would connect two small schools by sharing a single administrative team while still keeping both school sites open closer to their students’ homes,” he said. “Francisco Elementary School would basically become a satellite instructional site for either Lawsonville or Nancy Reynolds. The Francisco teachers and teacher assistants would be supervised daily by a lead teacher or an assistant principal shared by the other school. This change would of course require school policy adaptations to allow and support such an innovative approach, but it would also give Stokes County Schools a model that can be used in other small community schools.”
Watson said any plan to keep the school open with community support would need to involve community implementation teams to prevent duplication of work between the community and the school system and to help generate additional ideas for the future.
“This is a partnership between us and you,” he said. “We cannot address school issues without your blessing. If you decide to grant us one year we are hopeful that more involvement will make our school more appealing for generations to come. We are asking you to be our partner for the next year.”
Board members thanked the community for presenting their ideas, noting that there was a lot to think about concerning the school.
“I think you are headed in the right direction with your thinking,” said Board Member Becky Boles.
But Board Chair Sonya Cox noted that the board had to make its decisions on what was best for the students at the school.
“This is not about the cost of an administrator,” she said. “That is not the main thing driving how I will vote on this. The cost of a principal can be worked out if there are enough students to support that. While you have very good plans and ideas, I am not sure if in the next year they are going to increase the number of students there. That is what we have to decide.”
She also noted that several of the ideas, like renting out portions of the property and having the community provide maintenance work may result in legal liability issues for the school system.
School Board Attorney Fred Johnson said the next step the board would need to take before it could make a decision to close the school would be to set a public hearing with community.
“It is the last step before a final decision,” he said. “A public hearing is to allow anyone else to express their views and provide the board with any additional information the board should consider. It means the question is still open as to whether or not to close it.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.