Bell County battles Pineville over students

Published 11:50 am Friday, January 18, 2019

The Bell County School District and the Pineville Independent School District are in for a battle over students, following a decision by the Bell County School Board this week.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the Bell County School Board voted not to accept what’s known as an “any and all” non-resident contract with Pineville, though it agree to do so with Harlan Independent, Middlesboro Independent and Corbin Independent.

The non-resident contracts allow state SEEK funds to follow students who attend schools outside of the district they live in.

The problem for Bell County is that 268 county-resident students attend Pineville Independent Schools, which brings in state and federal funds of more than $7,000 per year, per student. That means Bell County is losing about $2 million a year to Pineville Independent School District.

According to Superintendent Yvonne Gilliam, the issue comes down to whether the board will have to look at closing schools within the district, if enrollment doesn’t improve.

“Frakes is down to 119 students. Lone Jack is down to 172, I believe,” Gilliam said. “We just can’t afford to keep losing students.”

Gilliam said that Pineville Independent School’s total enrollment is 563.

She also spoke about the difficulties communities face when schools close and referred to the last consolidation, which occurred about 15 years ago.

“It is devastating to the people involved,” she said. “Nobody wins when you close a school.”

The board agreed to deny the “any and all” non-resident contract with Pineville Schools, to propose a new contract that would establish a “one-to-one” system, phased in over several years. The board voted 3-0 in favor of the contract, with Wayne Mason abstaining.

The potential loss of so many students could have a huge negative impact on Pineville.

The Middlesboro Daily News contacted Pineville Independent School District Superintendent Russell Thompson, who released the following statement from the school board:

“At Pineville Independent School District, we believe in school choice and respect the right of all parents and students to choose which school is best for them. By their vote, three members of the Bell County Board at the recommendation of superintendent Gilliam have signaled their intention to attempt to force 198 of the 268 county-resident children now attending Pineville Independent to withdraw and enroll in a Bell County School. Bell County Schools cannot benefit financially unless these withdrawals occur.

“In spite of that, and regardless of any contract, at this time Pineville Independent will continue to educate all students who wish to attend regardless of their residence. The net impact is that all of our students will retain their choice of going to Pineville, but Bell County School Board will have deprived both districts of thousands of dollars that would otherwise be used to educate the children of our communities. That funding will stay in Frankfort. We hope that Bell County School Board will re-consider this decision, and we stand ready to work with them to reach a common understanding that will allow both districts to thrive. We will attempt to negotiate with Bell County, but if that fails we are fully prepared to begin the appeal process.”

The Pineville Sun contributed to information included in this story.