By David Howell
WATER VALLEY – A cost-saving measure announced last week that eliminated jobs and several sports programs at the Water Valley School District is under review after one school board member asked to allow the community to “pony up” funding to offset the cuts.
Superintendent Sammy Higdon told the Herald last month that he was breaking the 11th commandment, when he announced cuts to various sports programs slated for the upcoming school year.
Programs on the chopping block include volleyball, 7th and 8th grade baseball, and 7th and 8th grade track.
These cuts followed two previous rounds of cutting, one implemented in August, at the beginning of the current school year, and the second round of cuts made in October. The three phases of cuts will eliminate 14 jobs in the district and reduce the budget by almost $500,000 in a two-year period.
The third phase of cutting, which has been the most drastic, followed an announcement from State Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds, which identified Water Valley as one of 14 school districts across the state that would be operating in the red after a 3.23 percent cut was made to schools statewide.
Weighing The Options
Two potential options were discussed to restore some or all of the programs, with particular emphasis placed on the junior high baseball program
“The situation with the budget cuts is near and dear to me,” Washington said, as the cuts, which were not on the meeting’s agenda, were scrutinized.
“There has been a tremendous outpour from the community on, baseball in general, but besides baseball just about budget cuts, math teachers and things like that,” Washington said.
His suggestion was to allow the community to step up and donate money before next year’s school budget, which would be earmarked for a specific program or position that is scheduled for elimination.
“I have had too many parents come to me and ask about that,” Washington said.
Washington said that sports programs in the school district allows
“If we are cutting a facility based on budget, and the community wants to step up, I personally don’t see a problem with that,” Washington.
“If it is about the students, if it is really about the kids, I think I came up with something that may fix our problems,” Board President Ray Hawkins said, offering a counter proposal that would require coaches to double-up and coach a second sport during their main sport’s off time.
Higdon said this option, which was first broached by Hawkins could be a possibility.
“For example, Bryant Mix, Coach Faust or Mr. Russo could coach another sport or two for the junior high school,” Higdon said.
“My suggestion is to cut out those five coaches (in the junior), reduce it to two coaches, and those two coaches coach all three sports,” Hawkins said.
An example, pointed out by Hawkins, would be to get Coach Russo to coach football, baseball and basketball in the junior high.
“I still think it only needs to happen if we get community support. If the community won’t fall behind it, then we keep it as a cut,” Washington replied.
“That’s why I said in the beginning, if the real purpose behind this is so the kids will be allowed to play, then there is no reason why the community won’t support this,” Hawkins responded.
“This allows an opportunity for those kids to play 7th and 8th grade baseball,” Hawkins said, referring to his suggestion to having junior high coaches work in multiple sports.
“If there is another motive, then I am sorry,” Hawkins added.
“If the community will pony up,” Washington again referencing his earlier suggestion.
“In this situation, the community doesn’t have to pony up anything. In this situation, you actually are just distributing the responsibilities,” Hawkins continued.
Pointing to baseball as an example, Hawkins said there is no baseball for 7th and 8th grade in the first semester of school because they are playing football and basketball.
“What does the baseball coach do in that particular time, because he is not coaching baseball. If you go with my proposal, those two coaches will be busy with a sport throughout the entire school year, because you get more bang for your buck,” Hawkins said about reducing the junior high coaching staff from five to two.
“I think we are going to make a vested interest in the sport,” Board member Dr. Steve Edwards said as he weighed into the discussion. “We have a good coach, we believe in that coach and we need to utilize that coach,” Edwards said, referring to Coach Doug Robbins, who heads up the high school baseball program.
“I would not want to babysit those kids and think they are playing baseball, I want to give them the best instruction possible to have a program,” Edwards said, referring to the possibility of having a junior high coach with little or no experience in baseball leading the program.
“Let Mr. Higdon look at it, and if if he is willing to coach football and basketball, I don’t have a problem with that,” Hawkins said.
“I am not picking baseball out, I want to make that clear,” Washington answered.
“Me too,” Edwards said.
“I am not either, let’s get the most out of the resources we have,” Hawkins answered.
“What we are saying though, if I understand your plan, is that we are going to save baseball, but not volley ball or track,” Washington countered. “What I am saying is, if the community wants to step up and support a program, we honor that,” Washington continued. “What you are saying is, we still cut those two (track and volleyball), and the school totally fund the others. That is still cheating those other two,” Washington said.
“Let Mr. Higdon look at it and let’s see what he can do to manipulate the system to utilize the fewer coaches to coach more the more sports so all our kids get an opportunity to play,” Hawkins said.
“That is all I am asking for, is the kids to get that opportunity,” Washington said.
“I didn’t arbitrarily make these cuts,” Higdon told board members during the discussion of the two proposed options to restore some of the cuts.
“I spent a great deal of time with this since October. There are 14 people that won’t have a job,” Higdon stressed. “Comparable to the two, there are no comparison, these people won’t be with us anymore.
Higdon then pointed to 17 cuts made in third phase of cost savings measures implemented by the school district after the state announced a 3.23 percent cut to state funding.
“This board has the authority to go through every one of them, pick it out and bring to the floor and vote for me not to cut it,” Higdon said. “You can pick out any one you want, there are 17 of them – you want to pick out baseball, that will be fine with me. I won’t lose any sleep, and you will never hear another word from me. Because we have always agreed to disagree.”
“There are 17 things that can be cut, and 14 of them eliminate a jobs,” Higdon said. “Compare those 14 (job losses) to a baseball program where the kids can move out, there is absolutely no comparison, for me,” Higdon continued.
“Duly noted,” Hawkins asked Higdon, ending the discussion on the cuts in the regular session portion of the meeting after Washington and Hawkins had each voiced their opinions.
Hawkins then steered the meeting into executive session to discuss two items, the superintendent’s evaluation and a student issue.
The budget cuts appeared to resurface in executive session with raised voices, after at least one board member indicated the discussion would continue when Dr. Joe Walker, the team’s longtime physician, was not allowed to speak at the meeting because the topic was not on the agenda.
While board members were in executive session, Dr. Walker told the Herald his intention was to inquire and see if the board would allow a $50 fee Walker would charge for performing physicals for sports participants to be returned to the school district to provide funding for the programs.
Dr. Walker also said he had never assessed a fee for this service in the past, but felt that it would be a good way to provide funding.
Dr. Walker also noted that the baseball program had provided an opportunity for more than a dozen athletes to play college ball in recent years.