News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 16, 2013

Sun setting on Union High School?

With financial crisis looming, residents of Dugger debate keeping state’s smallest public high school open

DUGGER — Terri Heaton’s family has a long and proud Union High School tradition.

Heaton is a 1978 graduate. Other family members to finish high school as Union Bulldogs include her brother and sister, her husband, David, and her two children, Jody Eslinger and Brock Heaton.

She has four grandchildren currently enrolled at either Dugger Elementary or Union Junior/Senior High, which are adjoining schools; her granddaughter is a Union freshman, who has already received her class ring.

Eslinger plans to buy a letterman jacket for her daughter, Katie, who participates in

athletics at Union.

But now, the big question rocking Dugger

is — will there be a Union High School after

this school year?

The Northeast Sullivan School Corp. board is considering a reorganization plan that would close the high school, and potentially Dugger Elementary as well. The district’s only other junior/senior high school, North Central in Farmersburg, is about 20 miles away — and much further for those residing in the southern portion of the school district.

Superintendent Mark Baker said a reorganization is necessary because of declines in enrollment and state funding; the district is spending more than it is taking in.

“Nobody wants to close a school, but we’re at a point where something different needs to happen,” Baker said Thursday. The district can’t continue to operate the way it has been “or we’re going to be out of money. They [board] have a very tough decision to make.”

The possible closing of Union is the talk of Dugger, whether at the Country Porch convenience store or the Coal Miner Cafe.

Because, many residents fear, it could be the death knell for this small community, population 910, located along Indiana 54 in eastern Sullivan County.

“It feels like our hearts are being ripped out of us,” Heaton said over lunch at the cafe. The schools are a huge part of the community’s identity.

Eslinger fears property values would decline and businesses in Dugger would be hurt. “We’re hanging on by a thread the way it is,” she said. “We’re not just talking about the livelihood of our school. We’re talking about the livelihood of our town.”

The schools and town are closely intertwined. “Save Union High School means save our school, save our town, save our kids,” Eslinger said. “There is no differentiating between those.”

She becomes emotional as she talks about Katie, who may have to complete high school somewhere else.

Eslinger asked her daughter if she should go ahead and buy a letter jacket for Christmas, since Union may close. Katie told her mom she plans to wear the Union jacket no matter where she attends high school. “I will never stop wearing black and gold,” the Union freshman told her mom.

“Some of these kids are being more adult about this than some of the parents,” Eslinger said.

But another aspect of attending a small high school in a small town is that “we’re all family,” Heaton said. People look out for one another.

They call upon each other to pick up kids from softball practice or to pick up a child who becomes ill while at school.

“We rely on each other a lot,” Eslinger said. “That’s one thing that will be fractured when we’re all divided up and all sent different directions.”

If Union closes, many people will probably send their kids to high schools in Linton or Sullivan, which are closer — but in separate districts: Linton-Stockton and Southwest Sullivan.

Linton-Stockton High School is about seven miles away, while Sullivan High School is about 10 miles away. For some living in the southernmost part of the Northeast district, North Knox school district is closer.

“From what I gather, a majority of our kids will not go to North Central,” Eslinger said. Parents and students don’t have enough information “to sway us that this is the best decision. There are a lot of unanswered questions.”

If families are going to travel that distance, “I want to know what you have to offer me that will make me want to take my child there instead of to a closer school,” Eslinger said.

Right now, everyone in Dugger is hurting, she said.

“There’s a lot of heartache,” Eslinger said. “People are wearing their emotions on their sleeve. They are angry. They are upset. They are confused.”

The financial predicament

The high school, which dates back to 1921, has 170 students. Baker said that over the last five years, the district has lost 150 kids, representing a loss of more than $6,000 in state funding per student. Total district enrollment is 1,290 students.

Over the last five years, the general fund budget has declined $1.8 million — from $11.1 million to $9.2 million this year.

The district has laid off 16 teachers and cut art, music and physical education at the elementary level. Also, five teachers who retired have not been replaced. “There’s nothing else to cut,” Baker has stated, adding that the district must now consider a reorganization plan.

When looking at the cost per student by building breakdown, the cost is $5,967 per student at North Central, which has 476 students, and $9,345 per student at Union, which has 170 students.

A recent feasibility study, presented by the board last Monday, calls for closing both Union and Dugger Elementary. Two elementaries would remain: Hymera and Farmersburg. Shelburn Elementary would be closed, and instead it would become a 6/7/8 middle school, serving the entire school district. North Central would serve as the district’s sole high school.

What the board actually plans to vote on remains unclear, as Board President Ronald Frye has indicated Dugger Elementary might remain open.

Heaton says her grandchildren mean more than dollars and cents. “That’s who I fight for, my grandbabies,” she said.

Talk about closing Union is nothing new; it was talked about even when she was in high school.

But residents were blind-sided when they learned unofficially that the board planned to vote last Monday to close the high school. The board had discussed the matter in an executive session — but not publicly.

Hundreds of residents and concerned citizens packed the Hymera Elementary gym in an effort to stop, or at least stall, that vote. They have until Nov. 25 to present their plans to achieve cost savings. The group calls itself the Save UHS committee.

However, another group also has formed, called Save NESC (Northeast Sullivan School Corp.), which supports the reorganization plan to keep the district financially solvent.

The board has scheduled a meeting for Nov. 25, when two committees — one from Save UHS, the other from Save NESC  — will present information. The board is expected to consider a reorganization plan at a separate meeting on Dec. 2, Baker said.

In Dugger, residents hope to find ways to keep their high school and elementary open, but they also realize that despite their best efforts — the board may go ahead.

Alfred Kendall, a longtime custodian at Dugger Elementary until his retirement, also hates to hear that the school may have to close.

“There is sorrow in my heart. It’s sad ... but it looks like they are saying there is no money,” he said. “If there is no money, what are we going to do?”

Kendall believes the board will be fair. “There is a lot of fair people on the board. I really believe they will do the best they can if they can help us. I believe that with all my heart because I knew them all, and they’re all good people,” he said.

Trying to conduct school as normal

Shane Reese, principal of Dugger Elementary and Union Junior/Senior High, gives Union students “a lot of credit. They are concerned. But their attitude has been good. We’ve tried to keep things as normal as possible here during the day.”

He talked to students Tuesday morning, after Monday’s board meeting attended by hundreds of concerned Dugger residents. “I’ve tried to be as open and honest with them as I can. They’ve got a lot of questions, as does everybody else,” Reese said.

Students, teachers and staff are concerned, but “we’re doing as much as we can to stay the course. It’s in the back of your mind, what’s going to happen,” Reese said. “We’re a small school and we’ve got a family-type atmosphere here.”

What would the closing mean for the tight-knit community of Dugger?

“It’s a big part of their identity,” Reese said. “You hate to say a community will die, but it’s tough on a community” when its school closes.

A mural in the hall says, “Welcome to Union High School: home of the Bulldogs.”

Cases are full of trophies, and photos proclaim the success of past sports teams. In 2004, the softball team was the 1A state runner up. In 2000, the boys basketball team was the 1A state runner up.

Union is the smallest public school in Indiana playing IHSAA football, aside from the Indiana School for the Deaf.

In the movie, Hoosiers — about a small-town Indiana high school basketball team that wins the state championship — a scoreboard shows the fictional Hickory High School team playing against Dugger.

The talk of the town

At Ray’s Red Rooster Cafe on Main Street, Sherry Bedwell describes four generations in her family that have been Bulldogs, including her parents, although they quit at 16 to get married and find jobs. Bedwell, her two sons and several grandchildren also graduated from Union; she is a 1963 alumna.

The thought of the school closing “makes me sick,” she said. “I hate to see it.”

Her son, Lonnie, believes the decision to close Union High School “is a done deal. Their minds are already made up. It’s a tough decision, I understand.”

He believes the best option might be for Dugger to become part of another, closer district, such as Linton-Stockton. If that happened, “I think the town would survive,” he said.

Depending on where residents live in the district, there are several high schools that are closer than North Central, he said.

If Union high school students have to go to North Central, Lonnie Bedwell believes it will cause some residents to move away and discourage others from moving in. Who would want to move to a community where parents and students have to drive 20 miles one-way for kids to participate in athletics, he asks.

He also fears land values will plummet.

In his mind, Northeast and Southwest Sullivan districts should have consolidated “years ago.”

“If you want to do right for students, allow us to come out of the school corporation and go to where you have the ability to try and participate in extracurricular activities, and still have a community,” Bedwell said.

At the Dugger hardware store, cashier Darell Cunningham weighed in on the prospect of Union closing.

“When they close the high schools, the town dies soon after because people move to where the schools are,” said Cunningham, also a Union graduate. “It hurts the local economy.”

He’s heard several people say that if the school closes, many of the residents with kids are moving because of the distance to North Central.  

“You can’t bus that far and do any extracurricular activities, especially with the price of gas and the way everybody works,” Cunningham said.

At the Country Porch convenience store, Dugger resident Brenda King also reacted to the possible loss of the high school.

“I think it’s so sad,” she said. When a school closes in a small community such as Dugger, there’s just not a town any longer,” she said. “Dugger’s in sad enough shape the way it is, let alone take our school away from us.”

Her grandson is excited about playing basketball this year at Union, where he’s a sophomore. “I hate to think this might be his last year,” she said.

King noted that students and parents are so concerned, they gathered in prayer Monday morning in front of the school.

The possible closing “is all that’s on the kids’ minds,” she said. “I hate to see kids be so upset over losing their school.”

She fears they’ll miss out on special activities they would have been part of at Union.

“They’re going to go into other schools as intruders,” King said. “That’s not going to be their school.”

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

 

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