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A community forum on "right-sizing" Central School District's elementary schools drew almost 200 people to Henry Hill Elementary on Feb. 26.
March 05, 2013
INDEPENDENCE -- Anne Butler's children are usually up by 7 a.m. on weekdays and out the door 40 minutes later to allow for the commute to Henry Hill Elementary School.
The Butlers live close enough that the kids walk whenever the weather allows it, a routine since 2005. That's when Anne's oldest daughter, now a high school senior, was enrolled here.
Butler has five children still at Henry Hill. If there's a special event or volunteer activity at the school, you'll likely find the Butlers there.
"It's meant everything to us," Butler said. "It's the only school (the kids) have ever known."
That could change by the fall.
Central School District's board of directors is gearing up for a vote -- as early as next week -- on "right-sizing" elementary schools in Monmouth and Independence as a way to shore up a nearly $750,000 projected budget deficit for 2013-14.
This means closing Henry Hill, redrawing boundaries for the remaining three area elementary schools, and redistributing students and teachers and repurposing the building.
The prospect has many Henry Hill families alarmed and upset, with some opining the district appears to have already made up its mind.
"I honestly feel like our kids are being used, like they're dollar signs walking around," said Suzie Estrada, the mother of a Henry Hill third-grader. "This isn't a matter of kids getting used to being at another school, it's about losing what we have here.
"These kids will lose their friends, their teachers."
Superintendent Buzz Brazeau has recommended the scenario, noting it's more cost-effective running larger elementary schools with between 400 and 500 students than four smaller schools.
Henry Hill has 264 students. The building doesn't have capacity for more than 400, Brazeau said. Right-sizing benefits include annual savings of more than $500,000, parity among the schools for teacher-student ratios and more resources per student.
Brazeau said the scenario could allow for fully restoring physical education and music for elementary schools. Passing on "right-sizing" means a variety of other cuts to programs and staff.
Butler said she and many parents first heard rumors the school might close several weeks ago. When a school staff meeting where the "right-sizing" concept was first proposed happened, the conversation spread to social media sites.
Siblings Mackenzie, Samantha, Dakota, Cassandra and Jordan Butler, from right, walk home from Henry Hill Elementary School on Thursday. A proposed "right-sizing" of Central's elementary schools would close Henry Hill.
"The kids came home one day and said their teachers had told them the school might close," Butler said. "There's already a mentality ... that it's probably going to close.
"My twins are upset, they think they'll get separated into different schools," she added.
The district held several forums on the matter last week. The one at Henry Hill drew almost 200 community members. By its conclusion, some parents and teachers were in tears while students brandished signs and chanted "Don't close Henry Hill!"
"No parents I've talked to think this is a good choice," Estrada said.
Attendees contended district leaders are pushing for right-sizing without seriously weighing other reductions, such as salary decreases.
Some said Henry Hill was being unfairly "singled out" and that the proposal was a response to the school's lower-than-average achievement scores on state tests during the last few years.
"At no time was student or school performance a factor in the recommendation made to the school board," Brazeau stressed. "If Henry Hill had a capacity that could allow it to serve 450 to 550 students, this could be a different story."
A main concern is the transitional impact for nonnative English speakers or low income families -- which comprise most of Henry Hill's enrollment -- to schools with different demographics.
Ed Weisensee, who has two children at Henry Hill, said the school helps marginalized populations integrate into the broader community.
"If you're trying to consolidate and taking a wrecking ball to the culture here, you'll see kids falling through the cracks," Weisensee said. "I know people have to think about dollars and cents, but the value this school adds to this community goes way beyond the money they're trying to save."