DEKALB COUNTY, Ala. – A small, tight-knit elementary school in DeKalb County is shutting its doors at the end of this school year.
It is something parents and Mentone community members have been fighting for decades.
They continued that fight at a community meeting before the school board’s vote on the closure.
Moon Lake Elementary School’s motto is “firmly planted, forward moving”.
The Kindergarten through Sixth Grade school with less than 60 students sits atop Lookout Mountain in the eclectic town of Mentone.
“Coming to the school as principal has been a privilege because it really opened my eyes to how staff, parents and community can affect students and school community and child’s learning,” said current principal Mary Lance.
The DeKalb County Board of Education unanimously approved closing the school at its regularly scheduled board meeting.
“It’s a very tough decision. It’s not what I want to do, it’s not what I like to do,” explained DeKalb County Board of Education Superintendent Jason Barnett.
Barnett explained to News 19 that it would cost $240,000 to fund a teacher in every grade at Moon Lake Elementary School.
He also said the debt of the Child Nutrition Program increases every year.
“If every student ate breakfast and lunch every day for the 180-day school year, we would not have enough revenue to match the salaries and benefits of employees. And that’s not counting the cost of food, the cost of electricity, water, gas, sanitation and all the other things we do. Last year, the program had a debt of about $63,000. We’re not able to fund all of our school in this way, so we can’t fund one of our schools this way,” added Barnett.
During a community meeting before the final vote many pleaded with the board to find solutions to keep it open.
“A community with no school has no future. Why would anybody want to move there and raise their children there if they can’t go to the school that’s right in their community,” said parent Jessica Harper-Brown.
Harper-Brown said the low enrollment was because of the pandemic.
Barnett said that’s not the case.
He shared with News 19 the enrollment has dropped from 129 students in 2006 to 57 in 2020.
He said he believes Mentone is becoming more of a tourist and retirement community, which could be the cause of the enrollment decrease.
After the news of the closure, one parent lashed out at the school board.
“How did a school with 55 students rack up $600,000 in lunchroom debt? I’ve been asking these questions for six months. I’ve never seen any response,” shouted one unidentified parent to the board before leaving the meeting.
Other community members said they’re now looking toward the future.
“Our community will rise again. We will provide for our kids what we need to provide. It’s just frustrating that we don’t feel like we’ve been heard of that the school board is really working with us. This community meeting didn’t really mean anything. They had already decided to close Moon Lake,” said Mentone Educational Resources Foundation (MERF) executive director Sarah Wilcox.
MERF provided the school with volunteer tutors and art teachers.
“Of course, we’re disappointed because we’ve worked hard for many, many decades to keep the school open. The school has been a wonderful success story for Mentone and for Alabama, so it’s disappointing, but we understand,” said former principal Bill Berry.
Berry started first grade at Moon Lake Elementary in 1963, before returning as a teacher in 1981 and later becoming the principal in 1994.
He remained principal for 13 years.
“I’m looking at this not as an ending but as a new beginning because I think the community can use the facility for something wonderful in the community,” added Berry.
Barnett said the school district is also hoping to use the campus as somewhat of a “legacy center” for field trips, etc, to continue the community enrichment for all DeKalb County students.
Moon Lake Elementary School students are zoned for Valley Head High School, but can apply for Fort Payne City schools.