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Lindgren, Sunnyside school closings eyed

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Closing two elementary schools was part of a draft proposal presented to the Ellsworth schools' long-range planning committee Monday.

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Lindgren and Sunnyside elementaries would be closed to regular school classes next June under the seven-part proposal. However, the former would be converted to an Early Childhood Center under another part of the plan.

"This is a place to get started," Superintendent Dan Kaler said about offering the initial plan for committee consideration. Kaler, who outlined the proposal along with Curriculum and Instruction Director Leona Johnson, assured committee members their input is sought. Toward that end, the committee broke into four smaller groups later Monday to examine and discuss the information given.

The superintendent opened the meeting by reviewing building capacities, which he said showed 320 students for Hillcrest Elementary, 300 for Prairie View Elementary, 150 for Lindgren Elementary, 120 for Sunnyside Elementary, 600 for the middle school and 800 for the high school. How these maximums affect core facilities in the buildings, such as gym, lunch room and others, received some attention.

The proposed school closings were actually the second part of the plan. The first was a proposal to move all fifth grade students to the middle school beginning with the 2007-08 year.

Fifth graders from Hillcrest are already at the middle school this year after that school experienced crowding in the past. Addressing concerns about larger fifth grade classes coming through in the future, Kaler reminded middle school enrollments are presently well under the 600-student capacity for EMS. At any given period during the school day, more than two classrooms are open there at present, he added.

As for future elementary class sizes in general, he forecasted between 15 and slightly more than 15 students in grades kindergarten through third, and from 20 to 27 in grades fourth and above.

Regarding the Lindgren and Sunnyside closings, he foresaw shifting the former students to Prairie View and the latter to Hillcrest. But he later mentioned the possible option of operating one kindergarten-through-fourth grade elementary of 576 students or two elementaries (Hillcrest and Prairie View) with 360 to 375 students at the former and 200 to 225 at the latter.

The conversion of Lindgren could include using that building to begin a four-year-old kindergarten program and leasing part of it to the CESA-11 Head Start program presently housed at the former junior high school (Ames Business Center), besides bringing early childhood there from Hillcrest, the superintendent said. Space for overflow kindergarten in the district would be available at Lindgren, if needed.

Among the draft proposal are three parts which would be dependent upon voter approval. He said a $250,000 non-reoccurring levy referendum expiring in 2008-09 would be replaced under one part. He very preliminarily projected a $700,000 referendum override to fund equipment needs, operating costs and building maintenance needs as a replacement, though he recommended guidance from a professional financial advisor about that figure.

If the referendum at such a figure was approved, it would represent a tax increase, he agreed. Alternatives to further cut costs would continue to be examined and, even with the significant budget reduction if the two elementaries were closed, other budget adjustments would be necessary, he said. About the override and the need for budget cuts, he reminded the state-imposed revenue cap hasn't kept pace with inflation.

Another part of the plan designated for voter approval involves having the Klaas-Jonas Community Swimming Pool dome replaced with a permanent structure. The new structure would have limited open-air exposure in the summer, but be more energy efficient in cold weather. The present removable dome will need replacement in the not-too-distant future, he said.

Voter approval would also be sought to remodel and build an addition at Hillcrest as well as develop more playground and athletic field space there. Upgrading the existing building, built in the early 1960s, adding a modern library, computer space, gym space and classroom space is envisioned. If it's decided to operate two elementaries, a remodel of Prairie View should be considered, too.

Kaler recommended employing an architectural firm consultant to refine the construction elements of the overall proposal, and hiring a financial/bonding consultant to assist with packaging the questions and compiling the financial resources.

The rationale behind the proposal, as viewed by the superintendent, includes: continuing a solid educational program for all students; realizing a savings of over a half million dollars annually for the duration of the proposed configuration; and serving the district into the future, based on its projected demographics. On the last point, he told of enrollments expected to keep declining, then perhaps stabilize, at best.

Johnson discussed staffing under the proposal. With the closings and combined elementaries, a kindergarten-through fourth grade Hillcrest would have 312 students and 17 rooms, while the same would have 207 students and 10 rooms at Prairie View in the 2007-08 year. There would be 103 fifth graders and four rooms at the middle school. A savings of seven core elementary staffers is expected.

The purchase of a new reading series is anticipated and, because elementary staff would have a common planning time under the proposed configuration, more attention to students who read at different levels could be given, she said. Some travel time between schools for specialists would be saved, she noted, and Kaler felt this might translate into more playground supervision time, addressing the potential for additional levels of maturity there.

Following small group sessions, committee members asked for more information about transportation routes and district demographics, the superintendent said yesterday. The committee's next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. in the high school cafetorium.

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