News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 23, 2013

NESC board to hear groups’ school plans

Save NESC, Save UHS to present opposing proposals in face of volatile financial straits

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Security will be tight during Monday’s special meeting of the Northeast Sullivan School Corp. board.

The issue on the table is a reorganization of the district and the possible closing of Union Junior/Senior High School and Dugger Elementary.

Hundreds of people are expected to attend, said Superintendent Mark Baker, who has consulted with the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department and Indiana State Police. Several police officers will be present.

Officials have decided that with the number of people expected to attend, “as well as the emotion and volatility of the topic,” a metal detector and two metal detector wands will be used, Baker said.

The board will meet at 7 p.m. in the North Central Junior/Senior High School gym in Farmersburg.

As people walk in, “They will have to come through a metal detector,” Baker said.

The board will hear from two groups: Save UHS [Union High School], which wants Dugger/ Union schools to remain open, and Save NESC [Northeast Sullivan School Corp.], which supports a reorganization plan outlined in a recent feasibility study.

That reorganization proposal calls for closing both Union Junior/Senior High and Dugger Elementary. Two elementaries would remain: Hymera and Farmersburg. Shelburn Elementary would be closed, and instead it would become a sixth to eighth grade middle school, serving the entire school district. North Central would serve as the district’s sole high school.

The school board has not indicated whether it favors this plan or a modified version.

Save UHS will present first, and Save NESC will follow. The board will then have a discussion based on information presented by both groups.

Greg Ellis, a Save UHS spokesman, said the group’s presentation will focus on revenue issues and what can be done to increase revenue for the school district. The group will also talk about district expenditures and ways the district can save money.

Save UHS representatives will look at long-term issues the district faces with the current state funding formula. Even if the district closes Union/Dugger schools, bigger issues exist that will require tough decisions in the future, Ellis said.

The group also will talk about “how we feel the school board has handled this issue so far … how they have handled it compared to the way we feel as a community it should be handled,” he said.

The group opposes closing Union Junior/Senior High and Dugger Elementary, which are adjoining buildings. “We don’t think that’s the right course of action at this time,” he said. “Just closing those schools doesn’t fix the problem.”

Save UHS has polled Union/Dugger families, and only about 5 percent say they will keep their kids in the Northeast school district, Ellis said.

Looking at the long-term big picture, consolidation of the two Sullivan school districts — Northeast and Southwest — might be an option to consider, he said.

Save NESC will present why it supports the reorganization plan that would close Union and Dugger schools.

The group’s chairwoman, Leslie Hawker, has said that the district is spending more money than it is taking in and reorganization is needed to save the school district. If the reorganization does not happen, the district will become insolvent and subject to state takeover, she has said.

“If we don’t do something, if we don’t operate immediately, then the patient is not going to make it,” she said.

The group believes reorganization “is the only fiscally responsible solution to NESC’s financial hardship.”

Also, Union High School, which dates back to 1921, is not up to code, Hawker said, and an engineer’s evaluation of the facility states that “in our professional opinion, costs of renovating this facility are likely to exceed those required to build a new facility.”

Lori Netherlain, a supporter of Save NESC, has said that “all other schools are suffering because money is being funneled from those schools to [Union High School] to keep it going.”

The district has had to cut staff and programs. Reorganization could “provide opportunities for getting some of our programs back,” Hawker said.

No one wants to close a school, she said. “It’s a sad thing to have to do.”

Hawker blames the state Legislature and changes in the funding formula for “strangling rural school districts” and forcing them to make the tough decision Northeast now faces. Charter schools and private school vouchers also are taking money away from traditional public schools, she said.

Baker said the agenda for Monday’s meeting does not call for public comment, but the board has the option of opening it up for public comment, if it chooses.

The board is not expected to act on a reorganization plan Monday. But Baker does expect the board to take action at its Dec. 2 meeting.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235.