WHITLEY COUNTY – Protestors littered the front lawn of the Whitley County Courthouse Thursday evening in support of Whitley County High School’s agriculture program, while just across the street a proposed plan was presented to the Whitley County Board of Education that would revamp the program in a way that school officials believe will be more beneficial to students.

Rumor of the program possibly being gutted or scrapped has been growing in the past several months as students, parents and community members wondered what would come of it once Glen Croley, one of the high school’s two agriculture instructors, retired. Rumor soon became criticism, as supporters of the program felt school officials weren’t properly addressing the issue. And when Croley officially confirmed his plan to retire at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, criticism soon became blame.

Thursday night’s board of education meeting is where those feelings ultimately culminated, with approximately 25 protestors inside the board room at Whitley County’s Central Office and almost 100 more spilling onto the street outside.

During that meeting, WCHS Principal Bob Lawson presented the board with a proposal to create a course offering for the school that would restructure many of the classes offered through the agriculture program under the umbrella of a new, larger educational pathway. According to information provided in Lawson’s presentation, the top five sectors currently consist of: health sciences, advanced manufacturing, business and information technology service, transportation and logistics, and construction and trades.

2016 employment figures compiled by the University of Kentucky show that the fifth largest industry in Whitley County is manufacturing, comprising 8.3 percent of the county’s workforce with 966 jobs. In Laurel County, that number is much higher at 16.2 percent and over 4,000 jobs.

“We have this one (construction and trades) covered with many of our ag power and structure and design classes, and we are going to continue those classes. The welding, metal fabrication, ag structure, ag power—there’s high demand in welding—we are going to continue those classes,” said Lawson.

All environmental science classes will remain as well. However, Lawson did note that a horticulture pathway that is currently offered would be phased out beginning next year, though it would be replaced with forestry. Other cuts could also be necessary, but Lawson said that many of the classes could be offered after school.

The board approved the addition of a health science pathway at the high school in August 2018. That pathway has allowed students who are planning for a future in the medical field to get early, hands-on training and has aided them in deciding on a particular focus within the field. Not only that, but it allowed for more students to participate in the necessary classes by making them available on-site at the high school as opposed to being bussed to the Corbin Area Technology Center in small groups twice daily.

“Our students at Whitley County High School had limited access to a field with high job demand,” said Lawson. “Before we [added that pathway, we] were getting seven to 14 students, now we have over 100 students being prepared and trained for jobs in the medical field.”

Lawson said school officials are trying to build a similar type of program with the new proposed pathway—one that will foster more opportunities for students.

Just as with the medical science pathway, the course proposal would allow students to find a specific focus within their field. Lawson said that students would be strategically placed in courses to help them meet the requirements for their particular pathway. Classes would also be provided on a rotational year-on, year-off type basis, meaning that students can take one set of classes next school year and then another the following year.

The proposed changes would also allow for a more manageable course load for the school's remaining agriculture teacher.

Lawson stressed that the proposal was just that: a proposal.

“I’m only asking you to consider the discrepancy between horticulture jobs and jobs in industrial maintenance,” said Lawson. “I want to make sure our kids have the best chances at jobs.”

No decision was made by the board concerning the issue, although protestors in attendance did speak up to voice their opinions as board members attempted to adjourn the meeting. A motion and a second was made to adjourn when Bob Lynch, a local engineer, asked if anyone was going to have an opportunity to address the board.

After muttered discussion among Superintendent John Siler, board Chair Brenda Hill and board attorney Tim Crawford, Lynch was informed that he could speak but that board members could not respond since they had begun adjourning the meeting.

Lynch used his time to talk about his job experience and how it relates to the issue before touching on some of the figures given during Lawson’s presentation.

“Environmentalism is the largest subject of business in any area because every job has it. And it has become even bigger to where it’s about 20 percent of the workforce, even in engineering. That’s one thing, the other thing is that you have to appreciate that the statistics given don’t show comparable results. For example, you showed over 4,000 in Laurel County that worked in manufacturing, but I’d say the majority of the people working there don’t even have a high school education. So, it’s not applicable, it’s not comparable, it’s not something you can say,” said Lynch.

“I’ve heard rumors that we had two people (teachers) in agriculture here before," Lynch continued. "I’ve heard rumors that ‘Well, they can take one away and not lose anything.’ That doesn’t make any damn since at all. You don’t have to be a university graduate to figure that one out. This can be handled very easy from what my understanding is. It’s disappointing if it’s not going to be considered and everything is going to be shut down and shut out. Very disappointing.”

Hill thanked Lynch following his speech and the board adjourned the meeting.

In other board of education business:

- An amendment to the 2018-2019 school calendar was approved to reflect days missed due to inclement weather and sickness. With the amendment, the new last days for students will be Friday, May 31. That will be a half day, with students to be released at 11 a.m.

Graduation will be held Sunday, June 2 at 2 p.m. at The Arena in Corbin.

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