RIMERSBURG – An hour-long presentation Monday night in the Union High School gymnasium spelled out the school district’s plan for closing Rimersburg Elementary School to the approximately 80 staff members and residents in attendance.
Superintendent John Kimmel told the crowd that a shrinking student population, as well as a shrinking tax base, were the main reasons for closing one of the district’s three schools.
The presentation Monday night was the official public hearing required by state law before a district can vote on closing a school. Officials said the earliest the school board can vote on the matter would be at its March meeting.
Kimmel showed that the district’s enrollment has dropped from 782 students in 2004-2005 to 568 students this school year. He said projections from the state indicate a continued decline in student population of about 100 students in the next decade.
In looking at what school to close, Kimmel said the conditions of the buildings were considered, as well as a number of other factors such as technology needs, maintenance issues, staffing and transportation.
“Sligo, in comparison to Rimersburg, is in need of fewer upgrades,” Kimmel said of the two elementary schools currently used by the district.
The plan, Kimmel told the crowd, would be to use Sligo Elementary, which now houses grades K-2, for kindergarten through fifth grades. Sixth grade classes would be moved to the high school, with efforts made to segregate the younger students from the grades 7-12 population.
One major factor in the decision, Kimmel said, is that while improvements have been made over the years to the Sligo building, work has been put off a number of times at the Rimersburg school. He estimated that in order to keep Rimersburg Elementary open, the district would need to invest more than $3.7 million in repairs.
Under the new plan, he said, many students would actually see their bus travel times reduced each day, with two waves of busing bringing students to the remaining two schools. The first wave would drop students off at each school at 7:20 a.m., while the second wave would drop students off at each school at 7:40 a.m.
He said that at Sligo Elementary, kindergarten through third grade would eat breakfast in the cafeteria, while grades 4-5 would eat in the library. Three lunch periods would be used each day at the building.
Overall at Sligo, Kimmel said the district would maintain three classrooms in kindergarten, first and second grades, and have two classrooms in third, fourth and fifth grades. The plan would also leave a room for the library and one for music classes.
At the high school, Kimmel explained that sixth-graders would go directly to the cafeteria when they arrived at the school and would be the first to be served breakfast each morning. Two teachers would oversee the grade and keep it segregated from the older students. After the other students are dismissed to their classes, the sixth-graders would then be escorted from the cafeteria to their classrooms on the first floor. The three sixth grade rooms would be located between the high school office and the library.
For lunch at the high school, the plan includes having two lunch periods, with grades 6-8 eating during the second lunch session. Kimmel said the sixth-graders would also be kept separate during lunch from the seventh and eighth grade students.
At dismissal time, Kimmel said that the sixth-graders would be dismissed three minutes before the older students in the building.
In addressing class sizes, Kimmel said that for grades K-2, there would be little change from the current sizes. For grades 3-5, he said that the average class sizes would rise from 15 students to 21 students per class, which he said was close to to the countywide average of 20.1 students per class in those grades.
While little was said about eliminating staff due to the building closure, Kimmel did say that the plan “may necessitate furloughs.”
As for what the district would do with the closed Rimersburg building, Kimmel said no decision had been made, but a number of options included keeping the building for storage, leaving it sit empty, renting or leasing the structure, selling the building, or demolishing the building. He said the district would be open to ideas from the community in what to do with the school and its grounds, which include the Little League baseball and softball fields, as well as playground areas.
Kimmel also said that money saved by closing a building could be used to boost course offerings at the remaining schools.
“Freeing up funding from upkeep of a physical structure may allow for investment in beneficial programs,” he told the crowd.
After Kimmel’s presentation, nine members from the audience addressed the board and administration during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Rimersburg resident Lacy Smith asked board members to explain how they felt the closure would benefit students.
Board president Brenda Brinker said it would be a benefit to have all K-5 students and staff in one building for collaboration, and that the closure could free up funds to possibly reinstate programs such as elementary art and library at the high school.
Smith also questioned why the district seemed to be in such a rush to close a school.
“This can has been kicked down the road for several years,” Brinker said. “It’s time to take action. This is something that should have been done years ago.”
Local resident Brittany Bowser, whose son will be going into sixth grade next year, asked the board how the six-graders would be kept away from the older students at the high school, especially in the restrooms and other common areas.
Kimmel said that the school would provide adult supervision of those areas if needed.
Bowser also questioned why the district had let the Rimersburg school fall into such disrepair over the years.
Brinker said that while most of the board members were relatively new and could not speak for past boards, she felt that it was likely due to the fact that the district has been considering closing Rimersburg Elementary for many years.
Union elementary teacher Jake Weckerly focused his comments on the district’s finances, saying that the district is not in the dire financial state that many board members and administrators have claimed over the years.
He urged the board not to make decisions based on the numbers being given to them, which he said have proven not to be accurate.
“This move is strictly a financial decision,” Weckerly said, noting that the district currently has a $6.7 million fund balance. “Sligo isn’t big enough to house all of our students comfortably.”
Weckerly said the closure would have a negative impact on the students, as class sizes are increased, and staffing is reduced.
Elementary teacher David Louder also addressed the board, saying that the district has reduced the number of elementary teachers significantly over the last decade already, and that the closure would further hurt the district’s ability to meet each students’ needs.
He said that the focus in the last few years has been to individualize instruction, offering smaller groups so instructors can better reach students.
“We’re finally moving in the right direction,” Louder said. “This building closure will halt that. The students will suffer.”
Elementary teacher Jennifer Monoyer agreed, telling the board that the increased class sizes “will be a detriment academically.” She said that by giving teachers more students, there would be less time to work with each student individually, and less time to communication with all their parents.
Madison Township resident Bill Coradi also focused his comments on class sizes, noting that “small class sizes are one of the few things this school has to offer.”
He also cautioned the board not to put the Rimersburg building up for sale, for risk of it being purchased by a charter or cyber school. He suggested donating the property to the community for a sports complex.
Parent Stephanie Crissman was the final person to address the school board, saying that the closure would take away a year of childhood from the sixth grade students who would move to the high school a year early and lose things like recess, Santa workshop, Sophisticated Luncheons and more.
She said the change would “make them become adults before they’re ready.”
“Let them be kids,” Crissman said. “Don’t make them grow up any faster than what society is already.”
After the meeting, Kimmel said that he would continue to explore ideas related to the closure, and would address questions from the public. Otherwise, he said, there would be no action on the matter until the board makes a decision, which could come in March at the earliest.