50 Years of Struggle on Troublesome Creek
Hardshell, Ky. In the first year of Franklin D. Roosevelt's tenure as President of the United States, representatives of his Administration put up a few thousand New Deal dollars for the construction of Caney School in this remote community on Troublesome Creek in mountainous Breathitt County.
Caney was a symbol of hope for the future. It replaced more than a half-dozen of the county's 109 schools, most of which were tiny one-room structures with a single teacher and 20 to 40 students in the first eight grades. Breathitt County school officials and the families to whom they were responsible looked upon Caney as an impressive first step in a long-range consolidation program designed to better serve the many hundreds of students living in the isolated hills and hollows of the county.
In 1938, the school system opened a new high school in Jackson, the county seat. It, too, was made possible with federal funds, and Eleanor Roosevelt herself came to dedicate it. One of her latter-day successors, Lady Bird Johnson, dedicated another Breathitt school building in 1964, and later in that decade, the county named a new $1.4-million elementary school for President Lyndon B. Johnson. More than one-fourth of the funds for that facility came from Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The brands of the New Deal and the Great Society are indelibly stamped on the schools of Breathitt County. The local and state political power of Marie Turner, who was county school superintendent from 1931 to 1969, and the Congressional power of 18-term Representative Carl D. Perkins of nearby Hindman, who has been chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee since 1967, have combined to assure Breathitt of favorable consideration for federal aid to education. Not only construction money but operating funds--at times close to one-third of the county's annual school budget--have come from Wash-ington. Breathitt County has needed all the help it could get; it is the kind of community that inspired the growth of federal aid to education. With the rest of eastern Kentucky and other sections of Appalachia, it has suffered from a long history of physical isolation, political and economic exploitation, and social neglect. Rich reserves of coal and timber spawned boom-and-bust extractive industries that traditionally have put back little for the wealth they haul away in trucks and trains.
More than a century after it became a county, Breathitt entered the post-World War II era without the industry, the skilled labor, the roads, the schools, or the political strength to lift itself from a chronic and crippling depression. In 1948, the county still operated 63 small schools for nearly 5,000 pupils--on an annual budget of only $248,000. The lone county high school enrolled 485 students, only about 50 of whom graduated the following year.
Since then, several factors have contributed to dramatic changes in the Breathitt schools. First, some new roads--and buses to travel them--have allowed consolidation to proceed steadily; the entire enrollment of approximately 3,400 now is housed in six elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school. Second, Kentucky's minimum- foundation program and other contributions have increased significantly the state's investment in local education. And third, federal funds to support staff and programs have become a major part of the school budget.
In sum, a remarkable transformation has taken place in Breathitt County in the past 35 years. For every eight schools then in existence, only one remains. Declining population has reduced enrollment by about one-third, but fully three times as many of those who enroll now stay on to graduate. Nearly 1,000 students currently attend the new $5-million high school in Jackson (built this year with local bond money and state funds), and close to 200 of them will graduate next spring.
But the financial transformation is the most striking of all. The annual amount spent in the Breathitt County schools is 29 times greater than in 1948. Included in the current budget of $7.25 million are local tax receipts of some $650,000 (9 percent of the total), state appropriations of $4.5 million (62 percent), and federal aid exceeding $2 million.
For the past three years, in the twilight of the Carter Administration and the dawn of Reaganomics, public education has faced a growing threat of reduced allocations from the federal government. The national recession likewise has forced hard-hit states like Kentucky to stretch their education dollars. In response to those economic trends, Breathitt County and thousands of other school systems now search for money-saving measures to soften the blow of funding cuts. That process of adjustment and its consequences have brought about some interesting and ironic developments.
Victor Jones was a student at Caney School in 1934, the year it opened. Born and raised in the Hardshell community on Troublesome Creek, he finished the 8th grade at Caney and then rode a bus to the high school in Jackson. Later, when he finished college, he returned to Caney to teach, and in 1961 he became the principal there. At that time, the eight-grade school had around 400 students; now it has a kindergarten but no 7th and 8th grades, and enrollment is down to 150. Victor Jones is still the principal, and he is fighting for the survival of Caney School.
Some members of the Breathitt school board and administration have indicated a desire to close Caney and one or two other small schools and to bus the students to the lbj School in Jackson or one of the other remaining elementary facilities. Mr. Jones has supported consolidation in the past, but he thinks it has gone far enough.
"We take a very personal approach here," he says. "I know every child, know their parents, know their home life. Our teachers do, too. There's a great spirit here. Every child participates in team sports. We've got students tutoring one another. It's just a very close, personal relationship. Caney is the hub of this community, the center where people of all income levels and religious beliefs come together. It would be a big mistake to destroy that."
Superintendent Eugene Sebastian, himself a former principal at Caney, is reluctant to discuss the prospect of closing the school. He speaks instead in broader terms of economy and efficiency, emphasizing the need to get maximum educational benefit from every tax dollar--and in those terms there is an unspoken and indirect threat to Caney's future.
Part of the problem is traceable to the school building, now almost 50 years old. It is in every sense an old-fashioned school, a drafty, creaky, two-story structure that shows its age. Its basement floods every time Troublesome Creek rises out of its bank, which is all too often. Furthermore, declining enrollment threatens to leave the school below the minimum level required by the state for accreditation.
But Victor Jones insists that those problems can be solved. "A building doesn't make a school," he says, looking out his office window at a softball game in progress on the lawn. "These children can learn as much out there under a tree. The building can be made more suitable--and even as it is, it doesn't violate any health or safety codes. As for enrollment, they took 70 or 80 7th and 8th graders and bused them into Jackson to the middle school about six years ago, and ever since then we've been losing programs and staff and students."
It is difficult to determine whether funding cuts are primarily a consequence of Caney's decline or a cause of it, but this much seems certain: The resources available to Mr. Jones in the heyday of federal aid to education are gradually disappearing, and their loss is draining the life out of Caney School.
A decade ago, Caney had nine regular classroom teachers and a supporting staff of full-time and part-time specialists in reading, speech therapy, special education, and social work, as well as six full-time teacher aides. Now, there are five classroom teachers, specialists in reading and math, a half-time librarian, and a half-time kindergarten teacher; a counselor and a music teacher come one day a week. Mr. Jones is his own secretary. He and the members of his faculty, by formal agreement, work from 7:45 A.M. to 3 P.M. without any breaks, not even for recess and lunch.
"We've had a lot of help from the federal government and from the state," he says, "and it all made us a better school. Those programs can be abused, but we didn't do that. We made good use of the funds. But the money had been drying up for several years--before and since Reagan took office--and now we're up against it. I don't know what the school board will decide to do about Caney. I just know we've done a good job here, and we can keep on doing it if we get the support."
The five-member school board meets in the new administration building a block from Jackson's main street; Breathitt County High School, the middle school, and lbj Elementary are all nearby. At its September meeting, the board postponed consideration of the needs and problems of Caney and Highland, another rural elementary school, but agreed to one member's call for an early discussion of the issue.
After the meeting, the board members shared with a visitor some of their views on school finance and the future course of education in the county. For the past few years, they said, they had made numerous adjustments to reductions in federal and state funds and to the effects of inflation and recession. They expected the next two or three years to require further belt-tightening, citing in particular cuts totaling 30 percent in federal Chapter 1 funds already projected for the 1984 and 1985 fiscal years. A hiring freeze is now in effect for the school system, resulting this year in a net loss of two employees.
Nonetheless, the board members seemed to agree that the federal aid had caused their school almost as many problems as it had solved, and that they would be better off without it in the long run. There are too many guidelines, they said, too many inequities that separate staff and programs; there is too much outside control, too much confusion of purposes, too much waste--and finally, too little good result to show for all the effort.
"I can't see that it's really made all that much difference," said one of them, "and the guidelines and paperwork are a burden. If they're that uneasy about how we spend the money, maybe they ought to keep it."
That view is not shared by some administrators and teachers, who point out that in spite of certain selective and well-publicized cuts in federal and state funds, the Breathitt schools actually have about a million dollars more from those sources this year than they got two years ago. Records in the central office show that a reduction in Title I funds over that period was more than offset by federal block grants and categorical aid covering such areas as health and nutrition, handicapped students, libraries, staff development, instructional equipment, and vocational education.
"For three years we've been told by people in Washington that cuts were coming," said one administrator. "We've reduced staff in anticipa-tion of that, but the big cuts have not come, and our economy measures have actually created surpluses, some of which we've been able to carry over from one fiscal year to the next. We've had good, careful management, and as a result, we're still in pretty good shape. But if the announced cuts for the next two years after this one are carried out, we'll have some big staff reductions, we'll lose some good programs, and the quality of our services will suffer."
A similar pattern apparently exists with regard to state funds. Reductions in allocations for textbooks, instructional fees, transportation, and certain other categories have received wide public notice in Kentucky, but overall state funding for schools is still rising--in Breathitt County, by more than $600,000 in the past two years.
While plenty of other school systems in Kentucky and the nation have felt the pain of federal and state aid reductions (just as some unfortunate schools--like Caney--have suffered more than others), Breathitt County has thus far escaped with only minor scratches.
But harder times appear to lie ahead. Because of the light local tax load borne by the owners of coal lands and mining companies (Breathitt's only major industry) and the tiny percentage of coal severance taxes returned to local governments by the state, Breathitt citizens have never been able to bear more than a small fraction of the operating costs of their schools.
State and federal appropriations have made public education the most consistent employer in the county, if not the largest. However well the school system has managed those funds--and however well it may hope to do without them--it seems certain that major reductions would be irreplaceable, and would push the county's double-digit un-
employment still higher.
One additional consequence of such cuts might be a move, for economy reasons, to consolidate further, by shifting all 7th and 8th graders into the middle school in Jackson and all younger children into lbj and one or two other elementary schools. The 150 youngsters at Caney thus could find theselves in close quarters with the more than 900 who already are in lbj, making it one of the largest elementary schools in the state.
For Victor Jones and the patrons of Caney School, that would be a sad and perhaps counterproductive end to a struggle for consolidation that began on Troublesome Creek a half-century ago.
"I know every child. ... Iknow their parents, I know theirhome life. There's a great spirit here. It's a very close,personal relationship."