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School closure called 'last resort'

But candidates won't rule it out as money-saving move

March 17, 2010

Two Elmbrook School Board candidates on Tuesday called for a referendum on whether the district should close one or two of its elementary schools.

Though closing a school is just one solution being studied to help solve Elmbrook's projected $15.64 million budget deficit, at-large seat candidate Kathryn Wilson said that if the board determines a closure is necessary, the final decision should come directly from the community.

"I would want a voice from the entire community before the board makes a decision," she said. "I don't think that's a decision we should be making unilaterally."

Area II seat incumbent Glen Allgaier agreed.

"This is not a School Board issue. I think once we understand the pros and the cons - and they are not easy - I think this is an issue I want to go to the voters on," he said. "They're the ones that can choose by their willingness to increase their property taxes to keep a school open, and I think they deserve that opportunity if we get to that point."

Voters to choose three

The discussion came during a candidate forum Tuesday.

On April 6, district voters will head to the polls to cast three votes, one for each of three open School Board seats.

Allgaier and Ilse Frayer will face off for a full term in the Area II seat.

The top vote-getter among Beth Horneffer, Sandra Schultz, Wilson and Bob Ziegler will be elected to a three-year at-large term, while the candidate with the second-highest number of votes will be elected to a one-year at-large term, serving the remainder of the term vacated by David Marcello.

Board members are paid $3,600 per year.

Closing school 'last resort'

The general consensus among candidates was that closing a school is a last resort.

Wilson said a school should only be closed if the alternative is major cuts to district programming.

"I am going to choose programs before I choose facilities," she said.

Wilson added that she would give great weight to the findings of the district's Enrollment Management Study Team, which is conducting a preliminary study on school closure.

"They are doing their homework," Wilson said of the team's members, "and I'm pretty confident that any recommendation they put forward is going to have solid backing."

Staff trumps buildings

Allgaier echoed Wilson's points, saying closing a school "will be the last on my list of things to do."

However, Allgaier pointed out that many district schools are only about 65 percent full.

"That's a lot of unused classrooms," he said. "Can we afford to do that?"

Closing a school is projected to save the district as much as $1 million. That savings could save 15 teaching positions.

"If I had a choice between laying off 15 teachers and closing a school, I would lean toward keeping the teachers," Allgaier said.

Other options out there

Frayer said one reason she's running for School Board is to fight school closure.

"There is not one thing the School Board can do that is more polarizing, more chaotic and more upsetting to the electorate - especially parents - than closing schools," she said.

Enrollment declines and increases are cyclical, Frayer said. The district has closed and then reopened schools in the past.

Instead, Elmbrook should look to grow revenue through K4, Open Enrollment and apprenticeship programs that would attract more students, Frayer said.

"I would not vote for closing schools except as an absolute last resort," she said.

School closing 'on table'

Horneffer said she agrees that adding K4 would help increase district enrollment and revenue and make Elmbrook more competitive while helping to maintain all six elementary schools.

Another option would be to move the district's administrative offices into one of the elementary schools, saving money on utilities while filling vacant space.

Closing a school should only be considered if there's no other way to preserve the district's programming, like fine arts and foreign language programs.

"If we can preserve the quality programming that our children are getting without closing a school, then that's the key," she said.

Ultimately, Horneffer said, she's waiting to see a recommendation from the Enrollment Management Study Team.

"Closing a school would be a last resort, but one that has to be on the table," she said.

New revenue needed

Schultz also called school closure a last resort, and said the district must look at new revenues instead of just searching for cuts.

"There's a lot out there to look at before we close a school, and I truly believe that looking at the revenue options is the way to do it," she said.

One idea: Creating an alumni association could help Elmbrook connect graduates with the district and seek donations, Schultz said.

Looking for revenue will help the district "create a positive outlook," Schultz said. If the board keeps its focus on cuts, it will negatively impact Elmbrook's marketability.

"If we're talking about all these cuts, what family wants to move into an area where the main focus of that district right now is cutting programs and closing schools and raising class size?" she asked. "I think we need to project a more positive look at our district. We've got great things going on here."

Backlash could be great

When developer Vincent Kuttemperoor tried to buy Swanson Elementary School from the district in 2004, it triggered a backlash from school community members, Ziegler recalled.

"That neighborhood was up in arms with the possibility of just moving (Swanson) a few miles away," he said.

The prospect of closing a school likely would be equally unpalatable, Ziegler said.

"The effect on the community - on the neighborhood - when you close a school is dramatic, and I think we really need to take that strongly into consideration."

While Ziegler said he respects the work being done by the Enrollment Management Study Team, he's hoping the group recommends "a blend of options," with school closing as a last resort.

"If you pinned me down and asked me to vote today on it, I would say 'no, I will not close a school.' "


CATCH A REPLAY

• The forum is replaying on cable channels 13 and 96 through April 6.

Isral DeBruin blogged live from the forum.

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