Panola Public Schools district has big financial woes, hopes to be open for 2014 classes in August

PANOLA, Okla. - The tiny Panola School District has served the community for 102 years.

However, it's not clear whether the district will be able to open its doors for the fall semester next month after Panola Schools finished last school year with a budget shortfall.

Now, the possibility that the district might not be allowed to hold classes is sparking fear in Panola because people there are afraid losing the school could spell the end of the community.

At the end of the 2013-2014 school year, Panola Public Schools discovered it had a budget shortfall of approximately $150,000. The district's Interim Superintendent blames the shortfall partly on an accountant's error when applying for the district's annual state appropriation.

He also cites the district's declining enrollment. Families with school-age children have been moving away from the district since oil and gas drilling in Latimer County has dropped off in recent years. Brad Corcoran said the difference between enrollment in Pre-K through 12th grade now and 10 years ago is significant.

"We had over two hundred kids in the elementary. Now, we have two hundred kids through the whole school," he said.

The State Department of Education wants to know how Panola schools plans to raise the cash to cover its shortfall. The district has already let some teachers go, hasn't filled slots for some teachers that quit at the end of the last school year and has been holding fundraisers, but there is still a shortfall.

That has residents in Panola and school officials concerned the State Board of Education could decide to annex their district into another nearby school district, perhaps Wilburton, a few miles up Highway 270. The Board's decision could come as early as its next meeting on July 24. Classes begin Aug. 13.

Corcoran said Panola Schools hopes to stay open as its own district even if it means cutting payroll and doubling up grades so that a single teacher has two grade levels in one class in the elementary school.

Second grade teacher, Jennifer Cannon's position is one of those eliminated.  "Something that I love to do was taken from me," she said.  

Cannon grew up going to Panola Schools and taught in the district for eight years. Her husband even built a pirate ship reading nook in her classroom. She's not taking it down in hopes of one day returning to teach again at Panola Elementary. 

Like many in Panola she fears her community's identity would be lost if its schools are annexed into another district.  School Board President Jerry Lessel doesn't like the idea of annexation either. "If we did, it would be as a last resort." By that he means if it is the only way to keep the school's doors open.

Two years ago, the Graham-Dustin School Districts along the Okfuskee, Hughes County line suffered from deeply declining enrollment as well. Each had multiple early grades taught in the same room by the same teacher because there were just a handful of students in each grade. Rather than wait for the State Department of Education to order annexation, Graham-Dustin Schools Superintendent Dusty Chancey says voters made their own choice at the ballot box. "It was pretty much a landslide in favor of it, 90 for the consolidation," Chancey said.

Now Dustin is the consolidated school district's elementary school and Graham serves as its high school.

Chancey said, "Now we've got one grade to one teacher." He adds, consolidation brought something no one expected. The communities that once made up two separate school districts didn't lose their individuality.  Each kept its own identity while at the same time bonding into a new community that's more involved with its schools than either alone had been in the past.

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