Janesville59.1°

Parkview district considers closing small, rural elementary school

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GINA R. HEINE
December 1, 2010
— The one hallway, red brick elementary school a couple miles from the Illinois border fosters a feeling of family among the teachers, students and parents, they say.

Like any other elementary school, jackets and backpacks are hooked on the wall outside each classroom, shoes are stowed on shelves, and walls feature turkeys traced from students' hands.


But unlike larger schools, the kindergarten through fourth graders at Newark share recess and lunchtime. The single hallway allows kids of all ages to bond—fourth graders help kindergarteners put on snow pants.


About 80 students fill five classrooms, and two classrooms sit empty at the end of the hall. The library and a music/art classroom are the only rooms not attached to the hallway. Lunch is served in the gymnasium, which during non-school hours is an unofficial town hall for organization meetings and exercise classes.


The school is a family, said Terry Govert, library assistant.


The family has come together to fight for keeping the rural elementary school open as the school board considers closing it because of declining enrollment and tightening budgets. Nearly 100 community members showed up for the board's November meeting, where officials heard from more than a dozen residents advocating to keep Newark open.


Closing the school would save an estimated $214,000, Superintendent Steve Lutzke said. The district faces a $400,000 deficit next year, with nearly half of it being filled with $179,000 the district saved from a federal jobs grant.


'Beyond next year'

If Newark closed, students would be folded into Footville and Orfordville elementary schools, and two to three teachers likely would be cut.


Another option is to close Footville Elementary, which would push the sixth grade into the high school. Lutzke said it makes more sense to close Newark because it's a smaller school with fewer students.


Other cuts have been identified to bring the deficit down to about $16,000, and Lutzke said that's probably the direction the board would go to keep Newark open next year if the other cuts are acceptable.


But, he said, "we need to think beyond just next year and decide once and for all if we're going to maintain three elementary schools."


Closing Newark has been brought up numerous times over the years, and it isn't healthy for a district to repeatedly go through the stressful discussions, Lutzke said. If the board keeps Newark open next year, Lutzke plans to recommend the board start immediate discussions on the 2012 school year and beyond.


The finance committee meets Tuesday, Dec. 7, followed by the board's Monday, Dec. 20, meeting. The board likely will be ready to make a decision at its January meeting, Lutzke said.


Small school life

Parents have described Newark as a place where kids make life-long friendships, learn respect and receive an outstanding education. Parents form a tight-knit PTO that has raised funds for numerous school items.


While eating lunch in faculty room, staff members recently describing what they think makes the school so special.


Staff members know every child by name, and teachers really get to know parents, they said.


SMART Boards bought by the PTO hang in each classroom.


Kids notice a newcomer even in a full hallway.


Dedicated volunteers help teachers.


That's not to say any of those things are unique to the school, staff members quickly point out.


Regardless of staff turnover, the family feeling has been a constant, longtime staff members say. The size of the school, they all said, is a key in its success.


This year, classes range from 12 students in kindergarten to 18 students each in the second- and fourth-grade classes.


Principal Mark Miller splits his time as principal of Footville Elementary and as the district's technology coordinator. He's at Newark about once a week. In his absence, first-grade teacher Vicki Neal handles day-to-day operations as building director.


When asked about the perception among some that Newark staff and parents think of themselves as the "Newark School District," staff members were quick to point out that they are no better than others as part of the Parkview School District.


If any building were to close—Footville, Orfordville or Newark—it would be sad for the district, third-grade teacher Wendy Cramer said.


"It isn't just Newark—it would be any building," she said.


Parents at other schools would react the same way, kindergarten teacher Shilo Vierck said.


Colleagues agreed when second-grade teacher Janet Danielson said she wants staff across the district to know that she respects them and never wants them to think that the Newark staff believe they are better or more important.


"I think the passion is coming from wanting to maintain that neighborhood school, that community school," fourth-grade teacher Kathy Swain said. "Everyone feels strongly about that, and I do, too."


School districts statewide are facing similar decisions

Closing a school is a painful option for saving money, but declining enrollment and yawning budget deficits have led to the closure of dozens of elementary schools across Wisconsin.


"As districts struggle with diminished resources, they're really looking to maximize efficiencies, and providing the best quality education requires looking at facilities, infrastructure," said John Ashley, executive director of Wisconsin Association of School Boards.


"(Districts) often find themselves having to make very difficult decisions when talking about closing a school. (It's) affecting memories of many who have gone to that school."


The Parkview district is one considering tough cuts—including possibly closing Newark or Footville elementary schools—to help solve a $400,000 deficit next year.


Statistics from the state Department of Public Instruction show 110 elementary and 16 elementary/secondary schools closed since 2002, but the numbers can be misleading. The state doesn't track the reasons for closings, so several of the 126 schools might have reopened in a new location or with the school format changed, for example, to a charter school.


Elementary school closings usually happen in smaller, rural districts, said Dale Knapp, research director for the Wisconsin Taxpayer Alliance.


Declining enrollment means fewer classrooms are needed and drive down enrollment-based state aid, he said.


"It's usually a very, very contentious issue because these small towns don't want to lose their school," Knapp said.


The decision process needs to move beyond emotional discussions, Ashley said. Instead, residents should ask how student can get the best education while maximizing resources.


More years of tough school budgeting are on the way, Knapp said.


"Whether or not that leads to school closings is really on a district-by-district (basis)," he said. "We'll probably see some. I wouldn't expect a lot."


Sparta

The Sparta School District, east of La Crosse, found a silver lining when it closed Leon Elementary in 2004.


Although residents around the rural school fought to keep it open, Superintendent John Hendricks said the school was converted into a community center after the district sold it for $10,000 to five community groups.


"They made very good use of the facility," he said. "It remains an important center of the Leon community."


The district closed the school to save money and because the school's facilities were inadequate.


"It was a wonderful place for kids to be educated, but increasingly difficult to justify to the rest of the school district," he said.


Students were consolidated into another elementary school, where Leon students could be in the same classrooms to "try to keep some feeling of community in a larger school," he said.


The district saved $350,000 to $400,000 annually, he said.


The Leon community was passionate about keeping the school open, but Hendricks said he thinks most people would say they made the best of a bad situation.


"The difficult part is doing what is right and appropriate for the whole district," he said. "Sometimes these difficult decisions need to be made on behalf of the entire district … even though (it's) very unfortunate for what usually is a very small percent of the district."


Prentice

Faced with declining enrollment, the Prentice School District in 2005 closed Tripoli Elementary, a rural K-4 school about 15 miles east of Prentice.


More than 60 percent of the about 75 students were being bused from the Prentice area to the rural school, District Administrator Randy Bergman said.


"We decided that it was not cost effective to transport out to there and back," he said.


The building also needed extensive work.


Tripoli students were consolidated into the K-12 building in Prentice.


Bergman said the buildings now are cozy, but the district realized "quite substantial" savings, including about $200,000 that would have been needed in repairs.


The building was sold.


There wasn't much public outcry over the closing, Bergman said, because "everybody could see we needed to do some cost cutting."



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