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Parents oppose school closings, fifth grade move at hearing

The ice cream one parent referred to in demonstrating her feelings about school reconfiguration at Thursday's public hearing was melted, she said.

No matter what she did to dress up the "sundae" she'd promised her children --- add chocolate syrup, squirt on whipped cream or top with a cherry --- she still didn't want to eat that unappetizing, liquefied ice cream.

She felt the same way about moving all Ellsworth School District fifth graders to the middle school next term, even if playground equipment was added there, computer availability was better than at the elementary schools or there was ready access to the local swimming pool.

But unlike ice cream that's been out too long, the local district's state-imposed revenue cap continues "frozen in time" since the early 1990s at a level that's squeezing the school budget, she and a large audience were told. School Board President Scott Helmer explained Ellsworth is the lowest-spending district in the county and one of the lowest-spending in the state, with a system that's locked-in spending here at this low level. Helmer also said the district's allowed to increase expenses no more than 3.8 percent annually, as well as revenues not beyond 2.2 percent, a dilemma destined to catch up with its budgeting.

The proposal to close Lindgren and Sunnyside elementary schools, transform the former into an early childhood center, plus shift fifth graders to EMS was widely panned at the second of two hearings last week. While the board president indicated the hearings were primarily intended as listening sessions for members, ahead of a decision expected at a special meeting March 5, he and others on the board responded to some comments once questions were put directly to him and Superintendent Dan Kaler.

Many of the issues raised Thursday resembled ones heard at two previous question-and-answer sessions for the public. The long-range planning process was criticized as being closed to residents' input and not truly long-range. Disappointment was expressed over the planning committee not being given options other than the school reconfiguration to consider. Non-attendance by some board members at the hearing also drew criticism (Helmer said the missing members had conflicts including a state wrestling tournament, work obligations and being out-of-state).

A parent reminded about resistance to having sixth graders shifted from the elementaries when the middle school opened in the mid-1990s. Meantime, she was "appalled" over the younger students at EMS now having to switch from room to room during the school day just like the older ones. She and several others said they planned alternative arrangements for their children if the reconfiguration proceeds.

Class sizes were a concern, as was losing students because of the reconfiguration in a time of declining enrollments. The swimming pool's expense when education is being jeopardized by budget reductions was a target for several speakers. Helmer answered the pool's financial situation doesn't affect the deficit in the budget's general fund and Board Member Paul Solyntjes said the long-range planning committee is addressing the pool's fate. Another matter for the committee, a levy override, may have a bearing, Helmer agreed.

That discussion led to a report on the committee's overall recommendations (the hearings were focused on proposed budget reductions for next term). Among them are hiring architects for input about upgrades to Hillcrest and Prairie View elementaries, engineers for input about the pool's future, financial experts for advice on a levy override and professionals to help with upcoming referendums. Kaler said these recommendations are to be brought to the board on March 19.

A district resident wanted to know whether the principal on a previous district bond is being paid or only the interest. Another wondered why Hillcrest Elementary School parents weren't directly notified about the earlier question-and-answer sessions. A parent of a special education student felt let down when her child didn't get the help she said she'd been promised during transfers from one elementary school to another.

Some speakers, including Principal Bill Fuller, defended Prairie View Elementary in light of criticism about the school, aired at a Q-and-A session this month. The speaker who reported that criticism said she did it in the interest of having it addressed and resolved.

A resident questioned the number of administrators who've been affected by cuts. Helmer responded with an explanation about how administrators' contracts are set up and acknowledged multiple layoff notices have been issued.

Another resident, who volunteered to help the schools with his technology expertise, understood principals spend most of their time disciplining students, an undesirable situation, he said. He also believed part-time staff receives similar benefits to staffers with masters degrees and thought salaries are too high if cutting 7.3 teachers will result in a $475,000 savings (one of the proposed budget reduction items related to reconfiguration). Helmer assured the audience that alternatives to the present benefit package are being examined.

The president also discussed the need for the state legislature to change the school reimbursement system before the local district's financial difficulties can improve. Although the relatively high number of legislators representing this vicinity pose somewhat of a disadvantage, he encouraged contacting all of them about supporting such change.

Responding to a question about future plans for facilities affected by the reconfiguration, he felt this should come after the board acts on the recommendations. However, he personally saw three options about Sunnyside's fate: "mothballing" the building and see what happens, see if someone wants to buy it (he denied he or his employer is interested), or tear it down and sell the property.

Some audience members Thursday backed the job the board's done and a few were receptive to combining the elementary schools. Although an overall savings in transportation isn't foreseen under the plan, there could be a benefit in shuttle bus ridership, the superintendent said. General bus routes won't be longer, but would be reversed.

During the first of last week's two hearings Tuesday, two district employees spoke. An appeal was made to retain one of two media center aides, proposed to be cut. The ratio of students to teachers under the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program was placed for an audience member at 15 to one, although the state allows up to 19 to one and the local district would add another teacher if the student number reached 20.