USD 497 Board of Education votes to close Pinckney Elementary and Broken Arrow elementary

Following hours of discussion, board votes to close two schools, move forward with middle school changes

Pinckney and Broken Arrow elementary schools will close at the end of this school year, following two tight votes by the USD 497 school board. 

Throughout an hour and a half of public comment, parents, students and staff members pleaded with the board to keep their schools open. In the end, both motions passed 4-3. 

“This was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made. I’m sorry for the hurt that I know you’re feeling,” Board President Shannon Kimball said.

The closures are part of a package with about $4 million in budget cuts that also call for the elimination of about 50 full-time high school and middle school jobs. School closures have long been discussed with Kennedy Elementary being repurposed into an early childhood center 2021.

This year, as many as five schools were presented as possible candidates for closure. Two additional buildings were taken to the school board for closure or change, including Woodlawn Elementary and Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. But board members opted to keep Woodlawn open and are in the beginning of a planning process to develop a more thorough concept for Liberty Memorial, projected for the start of the 2024 school year. 

The cuts come as the district works to close a budget shortfall and work to make staff pay more competitive, including for classified staff members, who often make less money than the students they work with. In the 2020-2021 school year, the budget deficit reached new heights amid an enrollment decline, in part due to the pandemic. 

On Saturday, both Broken Arrow and Pinckney hosted their closure hearings, a step in the closure process required by state law. The hearings were dedicated mainly to public commentary. Families, students and teachers all voiced their opinions for nearly two hours at each hearing. 

“I want to thank the community members, and parents, that showed up to the school hearings on Saturday,” Superintendent Anthony Lewis said. “It validated what we already knew, that we have high regard for our staff, for our students, and for our schools.”

Hugging, a Broken Arrow parent and child hold back tears seconds after hearing the decision that Broken Arrow is set to be cut. (Maeslyn Hamlin)

Leading up to the decision tonight, issues like changing middle school curriculum,  focusing on electives and prioritizing teacher plan periods and schedule changes were on the table. After nearly two hours, the board moved for a vote in favor of restructuring pieces of the middle school curriculum, passing 4-3. 

“I don’t want to damage the good things that we’re doing, the things that distinguish our district,” Kimball said. “But I know that things can’t stay the same forever and that we have some hard decisions ahead, whatever they are.”

Public comment on the issue ran deep, ranging from questioning safe routes to schools and dangerous streets students may have to cross, to the basic needs provided by the staff at Pinckney. 

“An upcoming meeting with Safe Routes To School staff is not a plan. The kids whose families struggle to get their faces clean and clothes washed are the same kids who will have to cross McDonald Drive,” community member Rebecca Gasten said. “You cannot expect the struggling kids from Pinckney to cross the street during rush hour.” 

Going forward, the district will finalize new boundaries and routes for students, while assisting families in their transitions to new school communities. A committee to work on the changes to Central Middle School will be developed at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year.

The votes for both issues were identical with Kimball, Vann, Gordon-Ross and Jones voting yes and Cadue-Blackwood, Hill and Emerson voting no.

The board will meet again on April 10, to discuss next steps and other business.

“We’re back here every decade or so debating the same solutions. But we’re not in the same world, we’re post pandemic,” community member Ashley Bloom said. “Our kids are resilient, we saw the pandemic, and we saw their resiliency. But at some point that bandwidth runs out.”