"No further plans" to move 5th grade to Blackwell Middle School

by Jordan Green

Blackwell Public Schools Superintendent Rick Riggs has “no further plans” to discuss the reclassification of the district's schools for the upcoming year.

Riggs told members of the Blackwell Board of Education about his decision during their regularly-scheduled meeting Monday night.

In his monthly report, which was printed and distributed to board members, the superintendent wrote: “The district discussion to reclassify sites has been cancelled. There will not be grade level discussion changes this year.”

Under the reclassification plan, the district's fifth-grade students would have been moved from Blackwell Elementary School to Blackwell Middle School. The elementary school currently houses students from Pre-K to fifth grade, and the middle school is home to sixth, seventh, and eight grade classes.

Riggs' announcement came after a specially-scheduled board meeting to discuss the reclassification plan with members of the community was cancelled. The superintendent said the meeting, which was set for Thursday, May 9, was called off when district leaders could no longer agree on how to move forward with the proposal.

“When we make a decision to present something to our board and to our community, it needs to be a unified decision, and that changed,” said Riggs. “I'm not going to get into the pushback, but what I'll tell you is that we make decisions based on what's best for kids, and everybody needs to be on the same page.”

The discussion over moving the fifth grade to the middle school came about after the 2014 closure of Huston Early Childhood Center, which housed Pre-K and Kindergarten classes. The district closed the school because it lacked a state-mandated fire sprinkler system. When the school was closed, the two grade levels there were moved to the elementary school, which Riggs says is now facing overcrowding problems.

According to documents obtained at Monday's meeting, a total of 619 students are enrolled at the elementary school. Some classes have as many as 26 students each, a number which may pose problems if state lawmakers do not again waive rules limiting class sizes.

According to the Oklahoma Policy Institute, the Oklahoma Legislature in 2010 passed a moratorium on fining districts that exceed maximum classroom occupancy laws. Due to an economic downturn, lawmakers allowed districts to exceed classroom size requirements that had been passed in 1990.

That waiver expires this year, and if lawmakers do not extend it, districts will be forced to cut classroom sizes and hire additional teachers.

One bill to extend the moratorium – Senate Bill 193 – has been filed. The bill's authors are Senator Dewayne Pemberton and Representative Mark McBride. But even if the bill passes, there are other bills that could counteract it. Four opposition bills – House Bill 2027, House Bill 2120, Senate Bill 428, and Senate Bill 571 – would put classroom size limits back in place for classes in the first, second, and third grades if they are passed.

The legislative session will come to a close at the end of the month.

Riggs said that, while the discussion over moving the fifth grade to the middle school may be done for the year, talks over how to alleviate the elementary school's overcrowding problems will continue.

In other news at the meeting, the board accepted the resignations of 10 district employees. They include: Chris Barbee, a BMS science teacher; Jessica Swain, a BMS English teacher; Alan Monks, a lay baseball coach; Shelli Jacobs, a BMS special education teacher and coach; Jacquelyn DiMarco, the vocal director for Blackwell High School and Blackwell Middle School; Chris Jernigan, a teacher at BES; Robin Hobson, a special education teacher at BES; Logan Burgess, a math teacher at BHS; Emily Rush, the vocational agriculture teacher at BHS; and Jeri Anderson, a teacher at BES.

The board was subsequently able to fill four of the positions. At the meeting, the board hired Tami Estep as a teacher at BES; Cassie VanArsdale as a teacher at BES; Cheyenne Bergman as the vocational agriculture instructor at BHS; and Amber Bateman as a special education teacher.

The board also rehired the district's support personnel and teachers working under temporary contracts.

The board is seeking to hire three people to staff the district's summer mowing crew. For more information, contact the district's central office at 580-363-2570.