Coal Helped Shape Our Rural Community’s Schools. Now, Everything Stands to Change.

My family roots have been here in Muhlenberg County for as long as I can remember. This is coal country, and for decades, local mines and industries like TVA have provided economic security in a community where not many other opportunities exist.

The mark that coal has left on our local school system is indelible. In addition to providing jobs, Muhlenberg’s coal industry also provides co-op and service learning opportunities to students. It also provides funding in the form of coal severance taxes, which have been used for everything from maintaining small class sizes to keeping teacher pay competitive. But now, given the recent vote to close a major coal-fired plant here in Muhlenberg County, I fear that those resources and opportunities may be in danger.

Back in February, the TVA Board of Directors voted to shut down Paradise Fossil Plant Unit 3 in Muhlenberg County. The controversial decision came after a delegation of leaders like Congressman James Comer, Senators Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, and even President Trump urged the board to reconsider the vote, which is certain to have major impacts on our community and local schools.

Heck, even Gov. Matt Bevin came down to Muhlenberg to speak out in favor of saving Unit 3.

If saving this plant can bring Matt Bevin and Kentucky teachers together, you know it must be important.

While I teach just across the county line in Hopkins County, I still call Muhlenberg County home and I’m concerned about how this decision will affect the educational opportunities that students here are receiving.

My brother, for example, found his calling in a high school co-op program where he got to work side-by-side with machinists, hydraulic mechanics, and welders at a local repair service. Naturally, a large portion of the work that they do involves machinery going into the mines, and there’s a huge ripple effect that can cripple their business when the coal industry takes hits like these. As coal continues to falter here during life after Unit 3, I fear that fewer students will have the opportunities to develop their skills, learn a trade, or participate in apprenticeship programs like my brother did.

Local school district officials are also concerned by the impact that the plant’s closure will have on district finances. For years, coal severance taxes have been a significant source of school funding, but losing Unit 3 may mean that Muhlenberg County Schools will have to tighten its belt for the long-haul. Think fewer teachers, larger class sizes, and no new textbooks for years. For the sake of our students, these are losses that we simply cannot accept.

That’s the message I tried to convey in a recent op-ed that I wrote for the Greenville Leader-News, in which I encouraged community leaders to come together and develop some ideas for new opportunities and revenue sources before we let this get the best of us.

When TVA’s initial two units were retired in 2017, for example, we softened the blow to our local schools by quickly replacing them with natural gas units within the same year. Making the switch to natural gas may not have preserved every TVA employee’s job, but at least it kept our energy sector alive. Is that off the table now?

We should also be looking to diversify our local economy as well, because it’s clear that we can no longer depend solely upon the coal industry. In my op-ed, I mention how the Paradise Regional Business Park in Muhlenberg has been named an “Opportunity Zone” by Governor Bevin, though it still largely resembles an empty field to me. Without successful industries in our community — coal-related or otherwise — students will begin to face the same chronic lack of opportunities that their great-grandparents faced before them. Barring swift action, Muhlenberg County will soon see more of its local students leaving out for greener grasses taking their talents with them.

It’s a sad, sad reality, but it’s one that many rural communities and school districts face every day. For the sake of our schools and the opportunities they provide, we have to start finding answers right now.

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