The DeKalb County Board of Education on Thursday heard from Moon Lake Elementary School local officials and residents regarding the closing of the school due to low enrollment and financial hardships.
DeKalb County Board of Education Chairman Randy Peppers said it was evident with all the emails and feedback the board received from the community that Mentone loves Moon Lake Elementary School.
“We’ve read them all and everything is taken into consideration,” he said
Moon Lake Elementary School Principal Mary Lance addressed the board, dotting the staff's hard work and the support of the community who have worked hard to make Moon Lake a success.
“The parents and community support at Moon Lake is phenomenal. It’s the most that I’ve ever seen anywhere in this county,” she said. “I’ve worked all over the county and never saw the support for a school like Moon Lake has.”
Lance said the work of her staff is shown through their efforts and commitment in the classroom.
“I have two classrooms that have four grade levels in it. People think, ‘Oh, you have small classes,’ but when you have two grade levels together, it’s hard to teach,” she said. “I also have a sixth-grade teacher who works hard. She teaches sixth grade all day long, and one hour of the day she commits to our first-grade students.”
Lance said that at the end of the day, her staff's labor was not in vain, and she thanked her staff for their dedication and the community for their support.
Jessica Harper-Brown, member of the Moon Lake community whose son is a second-grader, offered the board her perspective as a parent and a former Valley Head High School student.
“I spent most of my elementary education in Florida and I went to large schools. When we moved back in 1996, I excelled academically at Valley Head because of the small student-teacher ratio,” she said.
Harper-Brown said she makes a choice daily to drive over eight miles past Valley Head to Mentone for her son to attend Moon Lake Elementary School.
“It’s a totally different vibe up there. It’s a foundation that’s built for these students that they are not getting at any other county school,” she said. “I know we are a small school and I feel enrollment has gone down greatly this year because of the pandemic.”
Harper-Brown said she sees the benefits of a small school rather than a large school due to her experience, stating that in more prominent schools, students are just a number and are often overlooked; where at Moon Lake Elementary School, the intervention starts early.
“As a student at Valley Head, you can see the difference in the Moon Lake students that come in the seventh grade as compared to the Valley Head students,” she said. “You will often hear people say over the years that usually the valedictorians and salutatorians at VHS came from Moon Lake and it’s true.”
Former Moon Lake Elementary School Principal Bill Berry, whose ties to Moon Lake run deep, took the floor, echoing sentiments of community support for the school and its ability to withstand the test of time, including many threats of consolidation and shutdowns.
As a former student and educator, he provided the board with insight into the school's academic strengths and accomplishments, reaffirming the schools' motto, “firmly planted, forward-moving.”
“We have the strongest support of any school in the county and I would even wager the state,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
The board also heard from Mentone Educational Resources Foundation (MERF) Executive Director Sarah Wilcox, who spoke about their efforts to keep the school alive and avoid closure.
In a meeting with the board in May of 2019, Wilcox said there was a discussion of milestones and suggestions to help the school, including bringing the school lunches up from VHS.
Marsha Merrell, a product of Moon Lake Elementary and a member of Mentone Educational Resources Foundation, proposed Moon Lake be the primary elementary school for the area and let VHS be a middle school and high school.
“Let Mentone and Moon Lake do what we do best and that is take young children and educate them, nurture them and give them the best possible start that any child could possibly start to function in this world,” she said. “In Moon Lake, the kids rank in the top 20% of the state, Valley Head the bottom 50%.”
She urged the board to “think outside the box and be creative.”
“We’ve looked at things. We’ve requested data and documents so that we can make an informed decision,” said Peppers. “This is something that’s been looked at, that has come up since before I’ve been on the board and the financial part of it comes up every year.”
Peppers touched on some of the points discussed and brought forth through the community's forum, including the school’s A-ranking and the arts program.
“The 94 published on their most recent report card, it’s been talked about and I am not taking anything away from that,” he said. “But you can also look at Valley Head High School and see their improvements and it’s a whole different demographic when you look at an elementary school compared to a K-12 school.”
Peppers said from his standpoint and the board’s standpoint, they are looking at every student in the county and not just one school and one area.
Board member Chris Andrews recognized the staff and educators at Valley Head who received unpleasant remarks via the 141 responses from the forum.
DeKalb County Superintendent Jason Barnett took the floor, addressing many of the topics discussed during Thursday night’s work session.
Barnett said the closure of Moon Lake Elementary School has been a topic of discussion for 90 years and has been brought up multiple times, including in the spring of 2011. During that time, the finances and decrease in enrollment were discussed.
“At that time, Moon Lake school had over twice the school enrollment it has now,” he said.
During the 2019 meeting previously mentioned by Wilcox, Barnett said one of the benchmarks was increasing enrollment. Since that time, it’s decreased by a quarter only for kindergarten but throughout every grade level.
“It’s declining at every grade level and it's becoming overwhelming,” he said. “The lunchroom debt by the end of this month will near $600,000. Last year it lost $63,000.”
Based on lunchroom workers' salaries, including benefits and insurance, Barnett said the cost is over $75,000.
“If every student ate lunch and breakfast every day with our reimbursement, we would have a total receipt of $58,084.38 that’s $17,000 less than the salaries alone, “ he said. “We would have to have a profit of $3 per meal just to pay the salaries of the employees. That’s not counting utilities, water, gas or sanitation.”
Barnett said they looked into the transportation of meals which came with its own set of hurdles from ServSafe, the FDA and liability issues.
Also, due to the decreasing enrollment, the school only qualifies for 3.4 teaching units, meaning the state funding will only cover the cost of three teachers for the school and the district would need to cover the rest at the expense of $240,000.
“We have positions that are serving 56 students that we pay the same for others that serve 1,200 to 1,100 at other schools, and that’s an equity issue,” Barnett said. “We have to provide an equal opportunity for all our students and that’s a challenge.”
He said there is no doubt the community has always been a support to Moon Lake Elementary School and the response of all the organizations involved will have an impact on the future of the students.
“Some of the most concerning things I saw from the comments were there seems to be a spirit of negative connotations towards other members of what I would argue are members of your same community,” he said. “I believe Valley Head is a good school. It’s been improving over the last few years.”
During the regular meeting following the work session, the DeKalb County Board of Education unanimously voted to close Moon Lake Elementary School at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.