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More details of Lincoln schools consolidation plan

Tuesday, March 7, 2023
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A Lincoln Parish School Board property tax renewal election next month will determine whether the board moves forward with a plan to consolidate its four elementary schools in the city of Ruston into two expanded K-5 campuses.

Days after the board voted at its last meeting to call the April 29 election and approve a capital improvement plan to expand Hillcrest Elementary and Glen View Elementary, schools Superintendent Ricky Durrett spoke with the Leader, giving more specifics on the plan and addressing some of the initial criticism the move faced.

If the existing 17.75mill construction bond tax for the Ruston district is successfully renewed at the polls, the board would bid out one of the two expansion projects with the goal of starting construction in January of 2024.

“It would take at least a year and a half,” Durrett said. “If we start in 2024, then 2025-26 could be the school year when the first one would open, at the earliest.”

He said the district hasn’t decided which of the two future K-5 campuses would be expanded first. The second project would start 6-12 months after the first.

The plan would see the district’s current schools for grades 3-5, Cypress Springs Elementary and Ruston Elementary, close, sending their students and faculty to the newly expanded Glen View and Hillcrest, respectively, which are currently K-2.

The expansions would be big enough that teacher counts and student-to-teacher ratios wouldn’t change despite moving from four schools to two, Durrett said.

“Class sizes will stay the same,” he said. “We’d just be moving a group of kids and teachers and all their belongings into one school, with as many classrooms there as we have now at the present site.”

The board has allocated about $53 million to do so, out of the $65 million capital improvement plan for the Ruston district to be financed by the property tax, if passed.

The plan was approved 7-4. Supporters say consolidation means fewer transitions and more continuity during students’ crucial elementary years.

“When you move from second grade where you’ve not been doing state testing to third grade where you do, that’s a big jump for a kid,” Durrett said. “Right now, that’s also when you move schools. But having that second grade and third grade teacher being on the same campus and communicating on a regular basis, I think that provides a lot more stability for our regular education kids, our special needs kids, our 504 (plan) kids, any kid — I think it’s an advantage for them.”

Opponents pointed to the fact that the plan would shutter two schools south of I-20 and grow the two schools on the north side. The south side is home to many low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Originally district administrators wanted to use Cypress Springs as one of the K-5 campuses to maintain a north/south balance, but the back side of the school’s footprint would make expansion unwieldy and much more costly, Durrett said.

Alternatively, the district could build a new school somewhere on the south side of town, but that would be even more expensive.

Ultimately it was decided these options were not viable to propose to voters, Durrett said.

“I don’t think it would have been right to ask for $65-70 million just to build one new school and not do anything else,” he said.

“What we came up with, we felt like it was the best fiscal plan for kids, parents and our community moving forward. Is it the perfect plan we would have liked? No, but that would have been too much to ask for taxpayers.”

The new K-5 schools may actually include pre-K if there is enough money in the tax plan to pay for the construction costs of adding pre-K classrooms.

“If we don’t have enough money to build the classrooms then we won’t move them,” Durrett said. “If we can, we’d like to. So we’ll need to get the bids in or at least get a better estimate of what they’re going to be before we make that decision.”

He said either both campuses will take on pre-K, or neither will.

Once Cypress Springs closes, the central office on South Farmerville Street would move to that school campus, as would all the special education, pupil appraisal, food services and maintenance offices currently on Arlington Street.

Durrett said not only would having every department together in the same building make communication easier, but going down to two elementary campuses could open up opportunities for more on-site services.

“We may be able to put some more pupil appraisal or special ed services at the schools rather than them being at a central office location,” he said. “You may have a pupil appraisal person who stays there. An adaptive PE, maybe. A speech (therapist) may be on campus there all the time.”

The Ruston Elementary site, once vacated, could become a new alternative school location, but plans for that haven’t truly begun. The district also has no plans for its current central office building once personnel relocate to Cypress Springs.

Under the consolidation plan, the only positions that would shrink would be in administration, as the schools would naturally go from four principals to two.

With years between the election and the potential opening dates for these expanded schools, current principals may leave or retire before consolidation is complete. If so, the district would appoint an interim rather than a full principal, knowing the schools will soon merge.

“But if we end up with still having two principals, one would be the principal, and one would be the assistant principal,” Durrett said. “We would not change anyone’s pay at that time though.”

When it comes to curriculum coaches and support teachers, once the schools are merged they’ll be servicing twice as many grades of students. To compensate, each one will cut down from two subjects to specializing in just one.

“I think that allows for more vertical alignment,” Durrett said. “The academic coach would know, here’s what (students are) getting in kindergarten, here’s what we’re going to do in first, second, third, fourth and fifth grades.”

When it comes to accountability and school performance scores from the state, the district anticipates that after the merger, the K-5 schools would take on the codes from the old 3-5 schools.

In other words, in the eyes of the Louisiana Department of Education, the newly expanded Hillcrest and Glen View would take on the score history of Ruston Elementary and Cypress Springs, respectively.

That’s because K-2 students don’t have standardized testing, so those schools simply derive their performance scores as a copy of their sister schools in the upper grades.

How to handle that accountability transition is ultimately in the hands of the state.

If voters approve of the tax renewal, it will extend for another 20 years at the same maximum rate it has now.

If renewal fails, the tax will come off the books, and the consolidation plan will not take place.