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November 25, 2013

Opposing views: Groups have their say on school closings at Northeast School Corp. meeting

FARMERSBURG — More than 700 people attended a special meeting of the Northeast Sullivan School Corp. Board on Monday night to hear presentations by two groups with opposing views on the subject of district reorganization.

The controversial reorganization involves a proposal to close Union Junior/Senior High School and Dugger Elementary.

Law enforcement also had a strong presence at the North Central High School gym, with 26 Indiana State Police officers present and about 10 representatives of the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department, including Sheriff Bryan Kinnett.

Everyone who attended had to go through a metal detector.

“It’s purely a public safety issue” to ensure order during the meeting, said Sgt. Joe Watts, Indiana State Police public information officer. Police were present to ensure speakers had “a chance to voice their opinions and do it in a safe, courteous manner.”

The meeting went smoothly, Watts said afterward, and people who attended were courteous.

The board heard 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.

Greg Ellis and Chriss Jobe, speaking for Save UHS, want to keep Union/Dugger open, delay a board decision and have all parties work together to come up with a long-term solution to the district’s fiscal problems.

Marie Hendry was the sole speaker on behalf of Save NESC.

The meeting lasted only about 45 minutes, and each set of speakers drew applause from supporters, who tended to sit on opposite sides of the gym.

During his presentation, Jobe criticized the board for not seeking public input sooner in making such an important decision. Complete transparency should be at the forefront when talking about the closure of two schools, he said.

The board discussed the reorganization behind closed doors, and then apparently planned to act on a reorganization plan — with no input from the Dugger community — on Nov. 11, action that was delayed.

“The absence of open door procedures, public involvement and most notably full transparency in this process has been extremely disappointing,” Jobe said.

Ellis pointed to a survey of Union/Dugger student families indicating only 3.4 percent would stay in Northeast School Corp. if the two schools are closed. He said that could mean a loss of $1.85 million in the general fund for NESC.

He noted that 25 percent of Northeast’s student enrollment attends Union/Dugger schools. According to Jobe, the two townships that make up the Union/Dugger portion of the NESC tax base account for 42.5 percent of the total assessed valuation of NESC.

To generate savings, Ellis suggested privatization of nonteaching staff and using volunteer coaches below the varsity level. Also, he suggested housing Union/Dugger students in the newer portion of the building.

He said the town of Dugger is willing to cut the school’s water rates by 40 percent; Ellis suggested the school district could try to negotiate reductions in other utility costs.

Ellis asked the board to postpone its vote while the various parties work together to find long-term solutions. One possibility is a tax referendum to generate additional revenue for the district; also, the district could study the possibility of consolidating NESC with Southwest Sullivan School Corp.

He did put the board on notice: If it votes to close Union/Dugger schools, Save UHS will seek legal representation.

He also suggested the board cannot legally discuss reorganization in closed executive sessions.

Save UHS would rather work cooperatively with other groups and find solutions that “will help every school in the corporation and hopefully be a success story,” Ellis said.

Hendry, in a brief presentation, said Save NESC favors a feasibility study recommendation that 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.

She noted that school districts today “are being pressed to provide more and more services with less and less financial resources.”

She noted that savings from reorganization could be used to add additional courses to the curriculum. Those added courses “are profoundly essential to keeping our students competitive in today’s high-tech society,” she said.

She also said that with current and projected enrollment trends, state and local funding and increased costs of education. “The reorganization is the most fiscally responsible and educationally grounded decision for the NESC community.”

Hendry asked the board to “make a sound financial decision so that our corporation continues to exist.”

  At the meeting’s conclusion, the board approved a motion by Norman Santus to meet in closed session Friday “to discuss the information we’ve been given this evening.”

On Monday, the board “will meet again to inform the community what direction we think the school corporation needs to go,” Santus said in his motion.

Monday’s meeting will be at 7 p.m. in the North Central gym, and police are expected to again have a strong presence.

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

 

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