Bunkie City Council: ‘Don’t close BELA’
As this school year comes to a close, and a new charter school begins preparing to open in a closed public school, there have been concerns that one of the 10 Avoyelles Parish public schools may have to close.
School Board members raised that fear when they were campaigning to defeat Red River Charter Academy’s application for state authorization to open in the parish.
Earlier this school year, the state Board of Elementary & Secondary Education granted RRCA permission to open in the 2019-20 school year.
The School Board agreed to lease the former Mansura High School property to the new charter school. That lease period began May 1.
Although there has been no discussion among board members about closing a school since RRCA gained state approval to operate, communities with schools remember the dire warnings from the School Board over the past few years of the APSD vs. RRCA battle.
At its April 11 meeting, the Bunkie City Council fired the first shot in what could become an emotional conflict -- IF the School Board determines a school must be closed due to a decline in state revenue caused by a drop in enrollment because of students in grades 6-8 enrolling in Red River Charter.
The council unanimously adopted a resolution proclaiming Bunkie Elementary Learning Academy (BELA) to be “an irreplaceable and invaluable institution of learning and enlightenment permanently secured in the landscape and forever woven in the fabric of our unique community.”
The Bunkie resolution focuses on why BELA should remain open. It does not point a finger and recommend another school to be sacrificed.
The resolution starts by noting that “traditional public schools are the backbone of our rural parish, providing young people with the tools they need to maintain our nation’s precious values of freedom, civility and equality.”
The use of the term “traditional public schools” is a direct slap at public charter schools, such as Avoyelles Public Charter, LaSAS and Red River.
The resolution notes that Bunkie Elementary “has been part of Avoyelles Parish’s public educational system for 67 years and continues to operate as an integral component of the critical early education process.”
It also points out the school has had extensive renovations over the past decade and has ample space to accommodate additional students.
While not coming out and saying it, the council was presenting the argument that there is room enough to house students who might be displaced when another school is closed.
The resolution presents the elementary school’s proximity to Bunkie Magnet as another reason to leave it open. The council also notes a long list of organizations, churches and individuals who have provided support to the school over the years.
It also notes the school is close to essential services such as a hospital, police department, fire department, ambulance station and several medical care providers in less than a mile from the school.
The resolution points out BELA is a major employer in Bunkie with 40 full-time employees.
The council noted the town “suffered the devastating loss of Bunkie Middle School” in May 2009.
The resolution provides another section which supports the overall position that no school should be closed, but focusing on BELA. It says the “citizens of Bunkie deem it unacceptable to allow yet another Avoyelles Parish School Board property to lay vacant, abandoned and scarcely maintained in the heart of the city’s residential, recreational and cultural center, thus devaluing adjacent properties and contributing to blight and crime.”
It further states Bunkie citizens are “opposed to busing our community’s students out of town and away from the aformentioned essential services, hereby placing undue hardships and stresses upon predominantly minority and at-risk households.”
Of course, citizens of Cottonport, Simmesport, Plaucheville, Effie and Marksville hold the same belief about their children and their communities.
There have been no municipal council resolutions coming out of the hometowns of the other five elementary schools, but there have been discussions among the various citizenry.
An education advocate, who asked not to be identified, pointed out prior to the Bunkie Council’s action that most people don’t believe the School Board will close a school due to the opening of Red River. He lives in another community.
For one thing, he noted, Red River will open as a grade 6-8 school and add a high school grade each year. It will have little effect on the elementary schools, except for the 50-60 6th graders it will enroll.
‘COMMON SENSE’ CHOICE
If the board does close an elementary, he said, “common sense says close Bunkie Elementary. It is a failing school and Bunkie would still have a school. Politics says it would probably be Plaucheville because it is rural and does not have the political pull that Bunkie does.”
BELA has scored “F” for the past three years. It was a “D” in 2015.
Riverside has also been mentioned as a possible choice for closure due to its poor School Performance Score over the past few years. It has been an “F” school for the past two years, a “D” in 2016 and an “F” in 2015.
Although seemingly isolated on the northside of the river, there was even a suggestion that closing Lafargue Elementary and assigning those students to Marksville Elementary would be a possibility.
It was also noted that such a move could result in the public school district losing more students than it would to Red River Charter.
At the same time some are talking about closing one or more schools, some School Board members have proposed bringing grades 7 & 8 from the three traditional high schools (Avoyelles, Bunkie and Marksville) and assign them to their feeder elementary schools that lost their high schools in a desegregation/consolidation order in 1987.
It has also been mentioned that a new K-8 could open in Hessmer to move the parish back to a community school concept.
In short, there are conflicting and possibly even contradictory proposals floating around while board members wait for the hard and final financial numbers and to see just how many of its middle school students enroll in RRCA.
Bunkie officials were the first to touch their nose and say “Not it.”
It is a good bet that if school closures became the topic of serious discussion, they won’t be the last.