LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Education Monday denied the DeWitt School District permission to close an elementary school in Gillett.
In a 5-2 vote, the state board rejected the request by the school district, which said it could save at least $241,000 annually by closing the elementary school that has just 74 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. The school is the only one still operating in Gillett after schools there merged with the DeWitt district years ago.
The elementary school in DeWitt currently has 480 students.
The state board direct DeWitt district officials to work with finance officials at the state Department of Education in re-evaluating the district’s budget to keep the elementary school open in Gillett, and to factor in about $60,000 a year in donations pledged by Gillett residents to offset some of the cost.
School Superintendent Gary Wayman acknowledged that elementary students at the Gillett school score higher on state and national tests — they scored at the 95th percentile or higher statewide on benchmark tests the past two years, ranking 5th statewide in 2011 and 21 in 2012 — but added that DeWitt elementary students score higher than average and that combining the operations would benefit the students and the district’s bottom line.
"I know this is not an easy time," Wayman told the board. "It’s not an easy time for us, it’s not an easy time for the people of Gillett."
Wayman said some had expressed concerns about length of bus rides because the district covers 922 square-miles, the largest in the state. He said the district has done studies that determined the 12-mile bus ride from Gillett to DeWitt Elementary would not lengthen any bus routes.
Members of the state board said during the meeting that they generally decide to close a school if there is evidence that keeping it open would be detrimental to the education of students. They said they found no such evidence in the case of Gillett Elementary.
"I have a very hard time voting to close a school that’s a high-performing school," said board member Sam Ledbetter of Little Rock.
Ledbetter said he also did not want to put the DeWitt district in financial distress.
Jared Holzhauer, a farmer and mayor of Gillett, urged the board to deny the district’s request, noting the high test scores and that residents in the community have pledged at least $60,000 annually to the school if it remains open.
After the meeting, Holzhauer said he only began soliciting donations last week.
"I guarantee $80,000 would be nothing to raise, and we could probably do better," he said, adding that the money would available for any use at the elementary school, but mostly likely it would be used for repairs and maintenance.
Wayman said after the meeting that he was "very surprised" by the board’s decision.
"Showing a loss of money, I don’t know how they can expect our district to stay financially sound and keep a drain," the superintendent said.
He said he and school officials would work with the state Department of Education to find a solution.
Holzhauer also said he was surprised, but realized his group had the school’s benchmark test scores on their side.
"I feel like we had a good case," he said, adding that after the board’s vote he immediately told Wayman they would work with the district in any way.
Voting to reject the district’s request were board members Alice Mahony of El Dorado, Sam Ledbetter of Little Rock, Jay Barth of Little Rock, Toyce Newton of Crossett and Mireya Reith of Fayetteville.
Voting for the district’s request were Brenda Gullett of Fayetteville and Vickie Saviers of Little Rock.