Gillett Elementary School will remain open after the State Board of Education voted Monday to reject a petition by its school board to close it.
The school has been part of the Dewitt School District since it and the rest of the Gillett district were annexed in 2004. Grades 6-12 were moved to Dewitt in 2009. The Dewitt School Board had voted 5-2 on June 12 to close the school after this school year, but because the vote was not unanimous, the district was required to request the State Board’s approval.
Superintendent Gary Wayman told the State Board that Gillett’s 1950s facilities are aging and that keeping it open was expected to cost the district $134,000 more in expenses than it would provide in revenues this school year. The school is enrolling 74 students, down from 81 two years ago, and there are only eight first grade students. At 922 square miles, the district is the largest in area in the state, but Wayman told the board that closing Gillett would not adversely add to transportation times, in part because the schools are only 12 miles apart. He said he had already cut extended day contracts for 19 staff members and had not given teachers raises for four years.
But the State Board was swayed by testimony from Gillett’s mayor, Jared Holzhauer, as well as local pastor Chad Phillip and Dewitt School Board member Mike Dodson, who had voted against the closure. The three pointed out that the school’s test scores are high and presented letters showing $68,000 that had been pledged annually by donors in five days. They said that closing the schools would hurt the close-knit community and leave students without a choice of where to attend, including some students who could benefit from the school’s small class sizes.
Holzhauer was one of the seven donors – in his case, $5,000 – and said other money could be raised. “It’s worth it,” he said in an interview after the vote. “A private school tuition’s going to cost that much money.”
Gillett is home to the Gillett Coon Supper, an annual rite of passage for Arkansas politicians. Once a fundraiser for the Gillett High School football team, it now raises money for local scholarships.
In other business, the board voted to accept a request by the Cross County School District to exceed by five students the maximum 28 students allowed in classrooms for the Cross County Elementary Technology Academy Charter School for the next two years.
The school’s superintendent, Dr. Matt McClure, made the request after it exceeded the maximum by two students in one classroom and three in another in a school that was built in 2009. McClure said students are still moving into the district and that it would be two years before the district could get the necessary state approval to add on to the building.
Cross County is a rural school district between Jonesboro and Wynne. Its high school was the state’s first to become a New Tech charter school, which is a nationwide movement that focuses on project-based learning using technology rather than the traditional lecturing model. Some academic subjects are combined so that two teachers interact with 50-60 students in a single large classroom, so the district has experience in large classroom environments.