High costs could cause closure of Sparkman Elementary
By Wes Tomlinson
The Morgan County school board has begun discussing possibly closing Sparkman Elementary School east of Hartselle because of its declining enrollment and high per-student operating cost, and a forum for community input will be held during the board’s next meeting Sept. 1.
District spokesman Jeremy Childers said operating costs at Sparkman per student are around $11,000 more than the typical Morgan County school. For this school year, costs are around $2 million at Sparkman for 102 students, which is about $20,000 per student.
School board Vice Chairman John Holley said enrollment at Sparkman Elementary has been a concern since he was elected to the board six years ago. The possible closure was discussed formally by the board at its meeting Thursday.
“The issue with enrollment at Sparkman School has been discussed for almost a decade,” Holley said. “When you have a fourth grade class with less than 10 students in the class, it becomes an issue. We’re still having to provide all that support and services and everything else, it just becomes a matter of concern and this is a very good time for us to review and have discussion with the community.”
The forum will be held during the board’s Sept. 1 meeting that begins at 4:30 p.m. in the central office off Alabama 67 in Priceville.
Holley said a final decision has not been reached on the school’s future.
“Community members will be welcome to come and speak before the board,” Holley said. “They’ll have a couple of minutes to talk and tell their board how they feel and hopefully present some ideas about how we can grow the enrollment at that school and justify keeping it open.”
Holley said per-student costs at Sparkman Elementary’s campus are almost double what they are at other campuses in Morgan County Schools. Data from fiscal 2021 shows Sparkman Elementary with 133 students, the lowest enrollment in the school district. Falkville Elementary’s 287 students and the 306 at Lacey’s Spring Elementary are the next lowest.
Tara Humphries, general ledger accountant for Morgan County Schools, said the state department has not released projected per-pupil expenditures for this school year yet.
Holley said the school board has never discussed closing Sparkman Elementary in the past but “the topic of ‘it could be headed to closure’ has been discussed openly before between community members and educators.”
Sparkman Elementary Principal Layne Dillard said the school board has not contacted her about possibly closing the school and she found out about it from Thursday’s board meeting.
“We have not been told anything formally,” Dillard said. “The July 14 board meeting is when they brought up some questions and said they were going to discuss things at the next board meeting, so I told parents and teachers they were going to be having a discussion about Sparkman and I think some of them showed up to that.”
The school is just north of Alabama 36 on Plainview Street about midway between Interstate 65 and the Alabama 36/Alabama 67 intersection.
Dillard said Sparkman has been the smallest school in the district “for years,” partly because they lose some students every year to Cotaco School, which goes to eighth grade.
“When (the district) moved our seventh and eighth grade to Cotaco about three years ago, they allowed siblings to go with them,” Dillard said. “So we lose our sixth grade every year and then we tend to lose all their siblings who go with them when they go, which makes it very difficult to grow.”
Sparkman is classified as a Title I school, which means at least 40% of the school’s students come from low-income families. Dillard said over 80% of her school has students who come from low-income families.
She said the school provides a lot of resources for low-income students, and if they are forced to go to other schools with larger student populations, they may lose remediation.
“They need one-on-one resources,” Dillard said of her students. “I think it’s harder for larger schools to meet the needs of each individual child.”
Holley said if Sparkman did close, the majority of its students would attend Falkville Elementary and some would attend either Priceville Elementary or Cotaco School in Somerville.