- UPDATED (12:47 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23)
Only a couple hours after Mary Drew Elementary School students gave presentations before its members, the Summit Hill School District 161 board voted 4-3 to close the school as part of its ongoing budget-cutting process.
Two weeks ago, the board changed course with its three-year financial plan, voting to keep the full-day kindergarten program after deciding to drop it during a budget workshop earlier this month.
After the vote, board president Mary Kenny asked that discussion concerning the possibility of closing one to two district schools in the 2012-13 school year be put on the agenda for the Wednesday, Feb. 22, meeting.
Who Voted Against It and Why
Board members Sean William Doyle, George Perros and Stacey Borgens voted against the closing, saying more time and information was needed before taking the action of closing a school.
During the meeting, Doyle and Perros strongly contended that the board--and the community--needed more specific facts before it decided to close Mary Drew or any school. Perros questioned what the exact plans were for what to do with Mary Drew once it was closed, as well as requesting exact numbers on how much would be saved by shuttering it.
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"Are we going to rent it, sell it, mothball it?" Perros said. "Generalities are one thing, but I don't think we've done the specific research. ... I have not seen the data that says we need to close a school now."
Perros also questioned why Mary Drew was chosen, given how well the school had performed on state tests. He also asked why older schools, such as Arbury Hills or Indian Trails, weren't considered, saying Indian Trails faces about $1 million in repair work.
Although built in 1974, Mary Drew was renovated three years ago. It also faces about $600,000 in roof repair work, said board Vice President Joy Murphy.
Earlier in week, Doyle and Perros gave Supt. Barb Rains alternative budget cuts to look at that would keep all the schools open, while providing the district the savings it needed. But Kenny said many of those cuts were already factored in under the board's streamlining model. Of the remaining reductions, Kenny said they weren't enough to reach the board's goal of cutting $1.4 million for 2012-13.
Who Voted For It and Why
Board President Mary Kenny, board Vice President Joy Murphy, board Secretary Denise Lenz and board member Denise Wildeveld voted to close Mary Drew, with the understanding that the board needs to cut "big-ticket items" if its going to reduce its deficit.
"I didn't want to do it, but we had to do something," said Murphy, who supported cutting the full-day kindergarten first before closing a school. "We owe it to the taxpayers."
The board chose Mary Drew on the recommendation of Rains, Murphy said. Arbury Hills and Frankfort Square elementary schools also have been under consideration and might still be closed in the following years as a way to streamline district operations and eliminate the deficit.
Of those three schools, Mary Drew is the closest to capacity at about 52 percent (Arbury Hills is at 41 percent, and Frankfort Square is at 34 percent) and has the district's highest percentage of students who meet and exceeds standards on state testing.
Mary Drew is connected to the district's administrative offices, which would be a selling point for parties interested in leasing the space, Murphy said. Also, it gives the district a better option if it should ever want to reopen the school if the economy recovers, Lenz said during the meeting.
How Much This Will Save
The baseline estimate the district would save by closing Mary Drew would be about $500,000, according to the model developed by Rains and her staff. This only factors in savings from section reductions, building overhead and district overhead and positions, the model shows. Although class-size maximums would not change, the model indicates there would be a 5 percent staff reduction with the closing.
Other factors that could affect this estimate but not factored in to the model include transportation costs and the rental of the building.
However, the board still has a long way to go to reaching its $1.4 million in cuts that it wants to achieve for the 2012-13 school year. With the closing of Mary Drew, the district only has created an estimated $800,000 in savings.
What About Teachers?
Board members were emphatic that Mary Drew teachers would move with the students, something many parents upset with the closing were skeptical about.
"The model says there's going to be a reduction in staff," said Ericka Soroko, who has two children who would have attended Mary Drew next year. "You can't tell me all of those teachers are going to be going to other schools."
But Murphy said any teacher reductions would not come only from Mary Drew, but it would be spread throughout the district. She also said that Mary Drew Principal Kathy Klein would not be let go from the district, but Murphy didn't know any specifics.
Earlier in Wednesday's meeting, the board announced the retirement of Hilda Walker Intermediate School Principal Jan Zevkovich, and one district resident suggested during public comments that board fill that open position with Klein.
Before the vote on closing Mary Drew was taken, Scott Smalter, president for Summit Hill's teachers' union, said the executive board met and decided against opening up the teachers' contract early. The contract expires at the end of the next school year, and a contractual pay increase in it is one of the contributing reasons the board is facing a tough financial situation.
District parents who attended Wednesday's meeting knew school closings were on the agenda, but many like Jen Vargas weren't prepared for Mary Drew to be the one to get the ax.
The possibility of closing Mary Drew was brought up in January, months after initial school closing discussions began centering around Arbury Hills and Frankfort Square elementary schools.
After the meeting, Soroko, who yelled, "Why didn't you listen to us before you made that decision?" before storming out, was visibly upset over the closing.
"I don't know what I'm going to tell my kids," she said, adding that she and other parents look at the people who worked and attended Mary Drew as family.
Soroko said she didn't think it was fair that supporters of the district's full-day kindergarten (Soroko would have supported cutting the program) were able to express their opposition to the idea at earlier board meetings. Mary Drew families didn't have the same forum because the final decision was sprung on them Wednesday, she added, admitting her feelings were biased and shaded by the fact that she had children in the school.
One parent, Tony Pietrzak, said Thursday he was organizing a group of parents that would petition the board to reconsider its decision on full-day kindergarten, as well as hire an outside consulting firm to develop the best financial plan for dealing with the district's $3 million projected deficit over three years. Pietrzak, who has two children that attend Mary Drew, also applied for the open board position recently filled by Denise Wildeveld.
"They're flying by the seat of their pants," said Pietrzak, who is against closing any school. "Not really listening to the community at the meetings. Not taking out advice. What do we do to make them listen."
Now, Rains and her staff will work on putting together the 2012-13 school year budget, hammering out the details of what will be cut before presenting it to the board. This also will include a plan on what needs to be done when it comes to Mary Drew's closing.
Also, the budget cut suggestions by Doyle, Perros and other board members will be reviewed and added to eliminating the $3 million deficit, Murphy said.
"I want to fill that pot as quick as we can without hurting the kids," she said. "They only get one chance to go through the system."