News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

April 9, 2014

Dugger school controversy: Hundreds attend public hearing for proposed charter school

DUGGER — Debbie Ellis delivered a heartfelt message during Tuesday’s charter school hearing in Dugger.

“Give us the opportunity,” she said.

It was a sentiment felt — and expressed — by many others during a public hearing related to a proposed charter school for the Dugger-Union Community School Corp. (DUCSC).

Representatives of the Indiana Charter School Board conducted the hearing at the Dugger Community Center, which was packed with parents, students, grandparents, business representatives, town officials and others who support the proposed charter school.

“We have a community here with the grit and determination that we will get the job done, no matter what it takes,” said Ellis, one of the DUCSC school board members.

She also spoke to the community members assembled. “Don’t be afraid to start over. There’s a chance to rebuild something here the way you want it. It’s for our leaders of tomorrow,” Ellis said.

About 200 people attended the hearing, which lasted more than two hours. The purpose was for Indiana Charter School Board representatives to collect feedback.

More than three dozen people spoke, and each speaker had three minutes. The community center was decorated in Bulldog black and gold, including a table of Union memorabilia and Union-Dugger shirts lining the walls. Even the table where ICSB officials sat was decorated with a black and gold skirt.

Another speaker, Terri Heaton, described herself as a “passionate supporter” of a new charter school. She talked about the community’s initial disbelief when the Northeast Sullivan School Board voted to close Union High School and Dugger Elementary.

But the town recovered and developed a new slogan, “I believe.”  The community rallied and came together to form a new school board, develop and file an extensive charter school application, raise funds and plan for the future.

“We know this isn’t easy, nor is it going to get any easier, but we are willing as a community to do anything it takes for our children to have their school,” Heaton said.

Greg Ellis, another DUCSC board member and Debbie Ellis’ son, said the board and community share a vision for what the school can and would be. And for any problems that may arise, the community members “have the skill set to tackle them,” he said. “All we need is an opportunity.”

He and others wore a gray shirt that said on the front: “You can’t keep a Bulldog down.” On the back, it read, “Dugger Union Community Schools 2014-2015. Here’s to our new beginning.”

The Indiana Charter School Board will act on the proposal May 1, said Sarah Sullivan, manager for the charter school board. It also will consider three other charter school proposals.

The new Dugger-Union Community School Corp. was formed after the Northeast Sullivan School Board voted in December to close Union High School and Dugger Elementary, which are in adjoining buildings. The NESC board decided to close the schools at the end of the current school year because of budget difficulties and enrollment declines.

Since then, many in the small community have rallied to keep their children and school in Dugger, through either a charter school or separate public school district.

The goal is to have the charter school open and ready in time for the 2014-15 school year, says Tom Peeler, DUCSC superintendent,

The proposed charter school would operate a K-12 program and it is looking at a pre-kindergarten program, Peeler has previously said. Enrollment in the first year is projected at 260 students. So far, he says he has intent-to-enroll forms for 141 students.

The school is important to the community “because there really is no other choice. There is no other option,” Peeler said prior to the hearing. The school community would have to make too many sacrifices in terms of athletics, extracurricular activities and in other ways.

“This is a powerful community. It’s a vibrant community and it deserves an opportunity to continue and that’s what the school will do,” Peeler said.

In keeping with state law, Northeast Sullivan School Corp. is taking steps that would make the Dugger/Union facility available to a charter school after the two NESC schools close later this year.

The Dugger-Union corporation is negotiating support agreements with several groups, businesses and higher education entities, Peeler said.

Among them is Indiana Railroad Co. Shae LeDune, a representative of the company, spoke in support of the charter school Tuesday.

Many company employees’ children have attended Dugger and Union schools, she said, as have some of the employees. The future of Dugger “is extremely important” to the company, she said. It views the closing of Dugger Elementary and Union High School “as a dire threat to the well-being of the community.”

The company supports the proposed charter school and would like to develop programs to benefit its students, LeDune said.

DUCSC board president Kyle Foli said much thought and effort has gone into the charter school proposal. “We’ve come a long way,” he said. “Regardless of the outcome, I’m truly proud of everybody here.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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