(Town Crier photo/Nan Snider)
Organizer Kenny Qualls said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss providing the best education possible for the students, with adequate facilities, and maximizing the use of taxpayer money while maintaining a school in a central location on Buffalo Island.
District board members present included Kenny Weathers, Mike Hook and Mike Brickell from Riverside; Nathan Sanders and Dale Wells from BIC; and Johnny McCain, Robbie Veach and Tony Crowell from Manila.
"I have no authority whatsoever," Qualls said. "I am just a concerned parent of a student. I was hoping someone else would initiate us getting together. I realized the urgency when Riverside decided to build.
"I wanted to see if all the schools could work together to come up with some solutions. We are all looking at the same problems. This is not going to be a one, two or three year fix.
"One problem was the buildings needing replacement. Then there was funding. No one wants to see a millage increase. Then there is the state mandated requirements for enrolment and curriculum. Each district needs to do some brainstorming on this, in a peaceful, not personal way."
"We are not looking to take the lead in this, we are just listening," Crowell said. "If the state pushes us to do something, of course, we are going to look at the options."
"We want the very best options for our kids as a district," Wells said. "We are happy now the way things are, but also want to explore our options. We owe it to our kids to be open minded."
"We are not adequate," Weathers said. "We are looking for locations on Highway 18."
"I hate to see us build new buildings and still have a triple A school system," Qualls said. "With a new facility, on a new site, there would be no community control. It would be cost effective and adequate to meet our needs. Together we could control our own destiny."
"Smaller schools can't offer the same curriculum as larger schools," he said. "We want our kids to be ready for college and prepared for the workplace. A neutral location would allow facilities at all the old campuses for the grade schools. Of course, a lot of logistics would have to be figured out. There would not be any sports wanted that couldn't be offered plus all the extracurricular activities. Now is the time to share ideas."
"The patrons elect us and we want to hear from them," Crowell said.
"Riverside and BIC have already faced this," Qualls said. "The kids don't seem to have any problem with it. We don't know what the final numbers will be for consolidation, and no one has built their new buildings yet."
"We are in O.K. shape, and this is not an issue for us right now," Wells said. "We don't know if this would be best for us or not."
"We are not opposed to anything," McCain said. "No one wants to lose their identity. I like small schools. We don't want to be closed minded or made to do anything. So far we are in good shape. The initial fear for you guys is gone. The general consensus in Manila is we are a little selfish and we don't want to lose our identity. We are in such good shape we wouldn't want to rush to do something. You all know that life will go on if you consolidate."
"He is right, they haven't had to travel yet," Qualls said.
"The world is in a mobile society now, so that makes things a little better for the future," McCain said. "We are looking at offering a wide range of things now. Everyone wants to offer their kids something they can really be a part of."
"What criteria did you use to select the individuals here today?" asked Gary Weaver.
"All the school boards were invited," Qualls said. "Our first meeting on Jan. 7 was just a random selection meeting."
"I guess what we are talking about today would be a long term plan," Weaver said. "If we don't do something quickly we may have choices made for us."
"This is an excellent opportunity to get together and see if there is a desire in the community to talk," Qualls said. "I don't think the state is through with us and we don't want to have things forced on us. The only negative about any of this is traveling. A new site would belong to everyone, and most towns would grow out to it."
"Are we talking about just junior and senior high?" asked Brenda Burcham. "Young adults don't want their babies bussed somewhere."
"The state is getting rid of known formats and looking at K-4, 5-8 and 9-12," McCain said.
"Right now these talks are about junior and senior high students," said Qualls. "They would be kept separate, but on same campus."
"Our people here go back to when it was Leachville, Monette, Caraway, Lake City," Watson said. "They have a hard time with it being Riverside."
"We don't have that problem now, perhaps in the beginning," Gilda Hultquist of Leachville said. "We chose to join together and that makes a difference. The kids got to choose their name and mascot. Choosing to merge is so much better than what the state will force schools to do. Most successful schools have all retained their individual elementaries."
"The older generation is opposed to change, where the younger ones are not," McCain said.
"Missco consolidated with Manila," Veach said. "So we know how consolidation works."
"When you consolidate you can keep the best of the buildings for use by the elementary schools," Qualls said.
"We have always had a problem between Lake City and Caraway," Burcham said.
"With a lot of schools there is less tug of war and less stress," Qualls said.
"Four or five communities would have a lot less problems for sure," McCain said.
"I think the stronghold is for all communities to hang on," said Weaver. "What are we going to make sure of is that this doesn't happen again, like the last meeting. Children are adapted, and this is a school district and parents should let this happen. One year of adjustment and then it would be over. We could miss the boat if Riverside doesn't do something positive and the state forces us to do what they want."
"Our only natural barrier is the St. Francis River," Weaver said. "The growth is in Lake City westward to Jonesboro. We need to work as a group to eventually get this in one school, but hang on where we are until we can."
"Let's get everyone on the same page," Qualls said. "Please discuss this at your school board meeting and if the support is there, let's meet again."
"All of a sudden my home town has become the hot bed of every other school district," Weaver said. "If they look geographically, we could all be together and keep the schools as close as possible. For now we need to meet our requirements. Let's handle short term things now, with the ultimate goal of getting together. Ultimately 7-12 has to be on one campus, for Riverside. Forget sports, and think about what kind of kids are we raising out of this community."
"I hope we can hold public meetings in other towns and go there to discuss this," Weathers said.
"I think these men are to be commended for taking the initiative to talk about this," Marcus Burcham said.
"We have not had our Lake City meeting on the school plan yet," Rob Love said. "I only found out about the Caraway meeting last week at the last minute. We need to talk about Riverside's 10 year plan. We haven't even got to look at that yet. It would be unfair if we discussed this at our Lake City/Riverside meeting, as we could get side-tracked."
"I don't know how you could talk about one without talking about the other," Qualls said. "This plan could be a model for the state."
"In theory or fact?" Love said.
"We need to decide what to do from here," Qualls said. "The boards might not be interested but the people might be."
"Several studies go toward large can offering more, but small schools are efficient," said Watson.
"I agree with that," Sanders said. "Is a large school really better than a small school? Studies don't reflect that entirely. In small schools average kids always get to do something. Opportunities are there. This is a positive thing. In our small schools teachers can give a one on one, or one on five attention."
"A double A school is too small to compete," Qualls said.
"Our kids don't move from one AA school to another AA school, they go on to bigger schools," Weaver said.
"We have got kids from large schools moving back here to go to our school," Veach said.
"Many classes small schools are forced to have are economical, with just three in a class," Hultquist said.
"Let's put this back to the people," Qualls said.
"It was hard for me to give up the green and white Buffaloes," Bob Blankenship said. "But my kids benefited from the formation of BIC. Now I am all grey and blue. We can see the writing on the wall and have to look at the future. Large districts can look at more options for the kids. Manila is growing and BIC and Riverside are holding on."
"I know that some of our board members are not here, but why are yours not here?" Crowell asked.
"The majority of BIC had prior commitments," Sanders said. "Most are interested. A couple are not."
"Where are our superintendents?" asked Watson. "They should be included. If we can't trust them to be a part, how can we do this without them?"
"Superintendents have a big enough load right now, and they don't want to take on anything else," Qualls said.
"As a board we give superintendents information and they take the right direction," Crowell said.
"If this is important enough the boards need to facilitate other meetings," Qualls said. "My job is done. Put it out there and see how it flies. I'll be willing to help any way possible."
"We can go back to our boards and report and see what they have to say," Sanders said.