Budget cuts threaten closure of local alternative school

Huntington, TN – In 1994 after fighting his way through nights of alcohol induced haze, Brian Stafford met his destiny, in Carroll county juvenile court. Soon Stafford found himself among other troubled teenagers at Carroll Academy. Now a college graduate, Stafford is back at the school, as a teacher. With budget cuts of over 640-thousand dollars threatening its livelihood, Stafford is concerned about long term effects, should the school close. Rebecca Feldhaus has the story.

That day in juvenile court, Brian Stafford met Randy Hatch. At that very moment, Juvenile officer Hatch had a decision to make for Stafford's future. Hatch could have sent him to a youth development center where he would have been with criminals with much harder wrap sheets than his own. Stafford ended up in a white Oxford shirt and black pants along with his other classmates at Carroll Academy. He attended for five months, and then went back to public high school. When asked where he would be without Carroll Academy, his answer was sobering.

"More than likely, the statistics will tell you that people like me, growing up in my situation they either end up dead or in prison by the time they're 18."

But Stafford wasn't like others in his situation. He took what he learned at Carroll Academy, used relationships developed there and graduated from college. Shortly after, the Academy hired Stafford to teach. But bad news followed closely. Carroll Academy is at risk of closing if the Tennessee Department of Children's Services receives the harsh budget cut they expect.

Right now, the department of Children's services has a 7-million-dollar grant to divvy up among places like Carroll Academy, but they are not legally required to do so. Spokesman Rob Johnson says the state is responsible for those students and children who are in their care. With the upcoming cuts, the department won't be able to fund like they used to. Johnson explains the priorities the department must fulfill.

"There have been some grants that the state made available to local communities for kids who are not in our custody. But, under the current budget climate, and again the proposals aren't final, there are programs that because the kids are not in state custody, although they may be very good programs, we can't continue to fund them."

The news of budget cuts is no novelty for Carroll county juvenile court director Randy Hatch. In the summer of 2008, Carroll Academy prepared to close because of similar funding problems. This year, they received the warning letter on December ninth. Hatch says 2008 was a very different story.

"We got notification the Monday after memorial day. We were told we were going to close in 30 days. That's how much notice they gave us. This time we have a little more time and a little more chance to organize and prepare just to make our case to the legislature and the governor."

While Hatch makes his case with the governor, he may draw from the close call in 2008. Doris Rich is grandmother to a 15-year-old Carroll Academy student named David. When David heard his school might be closing, he didn't take it lightly. Rich explains his initiative.

"David was frightened that his school would close. He got out and sold candles all over town. He worked hard trying to bring in a dollar to help the school stay funded. He sold over a thousand dollars worth of candles."

Luckily, David still has Carroll Academy to provide him with the structure and discipline he can't get at regular public schools. His grandmother is very proud of David and wants more for his school.

"Yes, I'd like to see the state fund this school like they fund all public schools. It should be a public school, and receive state funding on a regular basis guaranteed that the school is going to be open."

Good news came late this week the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus produced a release Wednesday stating the governor would fund Carroll Academy in his budget proposal for the next fiscal year. The budget proposal must still be approved by the legislature, but Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Colby Sledge says he doesn't expect any problem. This one year funding however doesn't address Doris Rich's concern of annual funding. Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, though, is championing that effort, and is including that among his priorities in his campaign for Governor.