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Residents sue over Cuba school closing

BY KATHLEEN FOX kfox@paducahsun.com

Several Graves County residents have sued the board of education alleging impropriety in the decision to close Cuba Elementary School.

The complaint was filed Tuesday in Franklin Circuit Court in Frankfort. The plaintiffs, including Graves County residents Josh Cherry, William Bell, Richard Jackson and Larry Dale Shelby, are represented by Hurt, Crosbie & May of Lexington. Cherry is described as a parent of a kindergarten student at Cuba Elementary.

Jackson filed a complaint with the Kentucky Attorney General's Office in March. The complaint alleged the school board violated the state's open meetings law during two January sessions. The attorney general's office did not agree.

The defendants in the lawsuit include members of the school board - Susan Barton, Kevin Curtsinger, Ronnie Holmes, Kelly Whitaker and Jim Wurth - and the Kentucky Department of Education  as well as its commissioner, Terry Holliday.

The complaint relates to the board's decision to close Cuba Elementary School by a 4-1 vote, with Whitaker the lone dissenter, at a Dec. 19 meeting. Superintendent Kim Harrison cited years of declining enrollment with fewer than 200 students each of the past seven years. The kindergarten to sixth-grade school has about 185 students, including preschool, enrolled this year. She also emphasized the growing facility needs, including a new roof and a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.

"We have taken the process very seriously and have followed all the rules and regulations required," Harrison said. "We believe our decision will stand up in court. At the same time, our preference always was to keep Cuba open."

The school is set to close at the end of this school year. Students would be moved to Wingo or Sedalia elementary schools for the 2014-2015 year. The board voted during a March meeting to declare the facility surplus property that would be sold at auction following the end of the school year.

The closure is projected to save the district about $374,000 annually, Harrison said. In November, a board-proposed school tax increase of 18 percent - from 37.5 cents to 44.4 cents on real property per $100 of property valuation - was struck down by 71 percent of county voters.

"With cutbacks from state and federal governments, our funds are limited and closing it now is a necessary financial decision," she said.

The complaint claims the board didn't following proper procedures regarding the school's closure. Districts are required, according to state statute, to develop a local facilities plan every four years but can amend it through two advertised local planning committee (LPC) meetings, a public hearing, and local board and Kentucky Department of Education approval.

The district's LPC met in February and voted to recommend modifications that would permit the closure, which the state agency then approved. The lawsuit states that the LPC didn't review the plan or the district's overall financial, demographic or physical status during the meeting.

The lawsuit alleges that the board used a "finding process" to change the status of Cuba Elementary from a permanent to a transitional school. A finding process is defined as a minor change that doesn't substantially affect the district's need assessment and only affects one facility. The document argues that the decision doesn't meet either of the prerequisites.

The complaint declares that those reasons make the board and state decisions invalid and unenforceable. It also claims that moving students to other schools would cause unjust hardship to the students and families. The lawsuit asks for a temporary injunction during the lawsuit, a permanent injunction until the action is compliant with state regulations and for the state to withdraw approval of the current plan, as well as payment for attorney's fees.

The complaint states: "Plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages and there is no amount of money that can adequately compensate for the harm and loss that will occur. The injunctive relief is not unduly burdensome as school is in session and the injunction will simply maintain the status quo ..."

School board attorney David Hargrove said that he hadn't seen the allegations and the board hadn't been served with the paperwork. Once the documents are received, the board has 20 days to file a response. He said depending on the statement's content, that response could be an answer or a counter-claim.

Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.

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