The Sunflower County Consolidated School District Board of Trustees has voted to close two of its rural elementary schools for good at the end of the school year.
SCCSD Superintendent Dr. Miskia Davis told The Enterprise-Tocsin this week that Inverness Elementary and East Sunflower Elementary will cease operations in May.
The board voted last week 3-1 in favor of the closings, with one board member abstaining.
The E-T was not present at the Jan. 11 meeting, and Davis said she could not reveal the names of those who voted yes, no or abstained until the minutes from that meeting are approved at the upcoming Feb. 8 meeting.
Davis said the meeting was “heavy” and had some tense moments.
“There was resistance,” she said. “There was crying. There were tears.”
Davis cited student enrollment - the lack of which has led to years of net operating losses - as the primary reason for the closures.
“Initially, it was on the table to close them for this school year, but because of COVID, (the board) didn’t want to add any more trauma,” Davis said. “They said, ‘We’ll keep them open this year,’ knowing they were going to have to come back to the table and have this discussion.”
Kids who would normally attend Inverness Elementary will go to Moorhead next fall, and kids who would enroll at East Sunflower will go to Ruleville Central Elementary.
“The rationale behind that, of course, is that’s where the sixth through twelfth grade students who live in east Sunflower go,” Davis said about Ruleville.
Davis said that families who live on the south side of the Sunflower area and on the Indianola side of Inverness may have an option to attend Indianola schools.
“The board has committed to making this transition as smooth as possible for these individuals,” she said.
SCCSD Board President Rev. Edward Thomas told The E-T that the decision was not made lightly.
“It’s not an easy decision,” he said. “It’s a huge decision,” adding that “It’s devastating for these small communities.”
East Sunflower and Inverness Elementary are two high-performing schools within the district, but Davis said the decision to close a school is not dependent on the school’s academic performance.
There is currently an online petition circulating aimed at stopping the closures, with over 700 people lending their signatures to the cause.
Kilpatrick Sibley, a parent of two Inverness Elementary School children spoke to The E-T this week about the announcement.
He did acknowledge that he heard there were conversations about closing the school a year ago, but he said the district did not make a good enough effort to reach out to the community, namely Inverness’ city government.
“They never did reach out to the mayor nor the board of aldermen,” Sibley said. “I, myself, had to reach out to them to let them know what was going on.”
Sibley said the closure will cause a major disruption for families like his, who often rely on those in the town to help out with their kids.
“I work in Greenville, and their mom works in Greenwood,” he said. “We have parents who work all over the different counties, but with our small town and the neighborhood where our school is at, if something happened to one of our kids, we don’t have to leave work. We can just make a phone call…Somebody is always willing to go see to one of your kids.”
Sibley said his kids are aware of the situation, and they do not look forward to the changes coming next fall.
“Right now, they are dreading it,” Sibley said. “And I hate it for them because even though we have small classroom sizes, that gives the teachers time to spend time one-on-one with each child, if they need it.”
A 15-year military veteran, Sibley said he feels more can be done to help save Inverness’ school and the school in Sunflower.
“There’s always a solution to everything,” he said. “I learned in the military for 15 years, I served eight years in the Marine Corps and then the Army ever since, there’s always a solution to a problem.”
One former East Sunflower student talked to The E-T regarding his concerns about the closure of his community’s elementary school.
“As a citizen of the town of Sunflower and alumni of East Sunflower Elementary School, it breaks my heart to hear this news,” Malachi Perry told The E-T. “Not only for me, I’m sure I share the same expressions of at least 86% of the population of Sunflower. First, they take our sixth graders and move them to a different school and different environment to now they take our entire school. East Sunflower is a gem in our community. At least 90% of the citizens of Sunflower graduated from East Sunflower. That gives you the value it holds in our community. To see it all taken away breaks my heart.”
Davis said she is sympathetic, and while the conversations about shuttering schools is tough, they are far from new in Sunflower County.
“I met with East Sunflower on January 28, and they had 130 people to attend, and I met with Inverness on Sept. 2, and they had 123 people to attend, just letting them know that the board was in conversations,” Davis said.
Davis said the board committed last week to making sure that every employee at the two schools had a job within the district next year, if they choose to stay.
She said none of the employees, including teachers and administrators, would have to take a demotion.
A virtual community meeting was held with the Sunflower community on Tuesday night, but there was not much back-and-forth during that chat.
An in-person meeting was held in Inverness on Wednesday evening after press time, and there is an in-person meeting scheduled for Sunflower tonight at 5:30.
The E-T will have full coverage of those events online and in next week’s print edition.
Inverness and East Sunflower by the Numbers
Sunflower County has not been spared from the population decline that is widespread in the region.
Since 2017, according to district data, the population of the town of Inverness has dwindled from 910 to 816.
Thus, the population of its neighborhood school has dropped.
There are currently six students in Inverness’ eighth grade class. There are nine students in the seventh grade class.
The kindergarten class has the most with 18 students, followed by 13 in first grade, 13 in second grade, 17 in third grade, 15 in fourth grade, 14 in fifth grade and 13 in sixth grade.
The town of Sunflower’s population has dropped from 1,027 in 2017 to 922, the district said.
The elementary school’s enrollment has dropped from 152 five years ago to 98 this year.
According to numbers provided by the school district, the 118 students currently enrolled at Inverness Elementary are supposed to bring in $734,260 through Mississippi Adequate Education Program funding.
That’s roughly $5,800 per child, if the district is fully funded, which it has not been since 2016, according to the district.
The cost of running the school is $1.2 million, the district says, meaning the school runs an annual deficit of over $500,000.
Around $960,000 of those expenses go toward subject teachers, a counselor, a secretary, a librarian, custodians, 1st and 2nd assistants and a principal, the district said.
Davis said the district cut a teacher for this school year at Inverness Elementary.
“The thing about it is that we’re at the point where we can’t cut any more teachers,” she said. “We’re at the bare bones now.”
As for East Sunflower, the school has run a deficit of at least $320,000 over the last two years.
Fallout From the Decision
When the school district was pushing the $31 million bond issue back in the summer and fall, one of the talking points from opponents was that the bond issue would result in school closures and the loss of jobs.
Inverness, in fact, voted against the bond as a community, but it passed county-wide with over 70% voting in favor of it.
Davis insists that the bond passing did not affect the school board’s decision.
“Whether the bond has passed or not, they still have six children in Inverness in the eighth grade,” Davis said. “They still have only nine people in seventh grade.”
Davis admits, however, that the timing isn’t ideal.
“That’s the worst part about it, and that’s the optics,” she said. “We get that, because every person I have spoken to, they understand the funding, but at the end of the day, they say, ’Why is our school closing?’ We understand the optics, but what the board is asking people to do is try to take emotions out of it, and I know that’s easier said than done.”
Davis said she feels the board can live with the optics.
“The board has to make decisions based on data and not emotions, because if they didn’t, we would never close a school,” she said.
And more school closures may be on the horizon for Sunflower County in the future if population and enrollment trends do not improve.
Currently, Drew-Hunter Middle School is operating at a deficit of about $78,000, according to Davis.
“Most (of our schools) are in the black,” she said. “We have one that has been on the table, and that’s Drew-Hunter. Drew-Hunter is running in a deficit.”
Davis said Drew-Hunter has about the same number of students as Inverness, but they are spread across fewer grade levels.
“Drew-Hunter last year had 122 students, but they just have three grades, 6-8,” she said. “They had the same number of students for three grades that Inverness had for nine grades.”
As for the buildings, Davis said she hopes to begin talks with outside agencies in the area who may can utilize the structures after they close in May.
“We just don’t want those facilities to turn into eyesores,” she said.