GREEN RIVER — Why not Truman? Harrison? Washington? Expedition Academy?
Folks asked those questions in public hearings Tuesday, when they wondered if a school other than Jackson Elementary School in Sweetwater County School District No. 2 should be closed.
They also asked if the district’s “central office” should be closed, besides how much it would cost to “moth-ball” the Jackson building, Cathy Hemker told the Rocket-Miner. Hemker is the substitute principal at Jackson, the school that is quite possibly on the chopping block.
Superintendent Donna Little-Kaumo held a meeting with school district employees last week about the issue, stating her same reasons to close Jackson that she offered to the board in its Oct. 10 meeting, Hemker said. In that session, Little-Kaumo also proposed to the board to close Jackson.
Hemker called the employee meeting “very helpful.”
“All of the community suggestions have been investigated,” she said while still talking about the get-together. “Most of them (Little-Kaumo) investigated before deciding what to recommend to the board.”
A decision will be made at the next board meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at the district’s Central Administration Building, at 351 Monroe Ave. in Green River. The public is invited to attend.
Capital construction money is released by the state of Wyoming “a couple of years before districts need to spend it,” Hemker said.
“Jackson is further down the list on the state’s priority and no money is coming in” at any point in the future, she remarked.
The district projects that its budget will drop $2.33 million next school year. At 5.8 percent, it should be the steepest year-to-year funding decrease in at least the past 12 years, and only the second decrease overall during that time frame, as the Rocket-Miner first reported Sept. 8. Jackson dropped 14.8 percent in unduplicated enrollment from last school year to this one, from 257 to 219, respectively.
The hearings were scheduled to take place from 7:30-9:30 a.m., 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and 5:30-7 p.m. Oct. 17. Approximately 86 folks attended, with “numerous comments at the meeting and written suggestions in response to the potential closing,” Little-Kaumo wrote.
Hemker supports Little-Kaumo’s proposal to close Hemker’s school, offering reasons for why it would be a bad idea to pursue an alternative route.
“I really do think that the superintendent did very thorough research before she made the recommendation and I do think that no matter what the board decides, we will have some public outcry,” Hemker said. “(The public) would rather have someone else adapt to (new) resources; it’s just human nature. … No matter what the board decides, we will have public grumbling.”
Closing the central district office is a problem because then teachers are vulnerable to “violate state law,” Hemker told the Rocket-Miner.
“We have to answer to what the state law requires of us,” she said. “Even issuing paychecks, the time that goes into that.”
“The work wouldn’t go away even if the people did,” Hemker said. “Any other cuts would have far more negative impacts than just relocating one group of K-4 students and staff members to a different set of four walls.”
On the suggestion to close Truman Elementary, that school is the district’s only Title I school. That means it’s the only one that can get guaranteed federal funding, Hemker said.
“If those kids were moved… into Monroe, that would change the percentage and they would likely lose their Title I status,” Hemker said.
The Title I cash is based on the number of students with free or reduced-rate lunches.
“Those kids, they are getting additional support because they need it, so it doesn’t make sense to make a decision that would impact the kids in need of extra support and additional instructional time,” Hemker said.
On Harrison Elementary, Hemker said that it has “the playground for handicapped kids” and a Snoezelen room, “a very unique environment” that “helps calm (the children” down and helps their brain accept new learning more easily.”
“And to move that and relocate it somewhere else would be huge expense,” Hemker said.
The “moth-ball” question about Jackson was an inquiry into the price of maintaining the school if it was “just sitting there,” Hemker said.
The biggest cost is personnel, which represents 85 percent of district costs, Hemker said.
“Costs on heat, lights, water, that sort of thing… is a minimal savings compared to not having personnel there,” he said. “However, the personnel would still exist in the district, but just be in a different building.”
That’s because the building that Monroe Intermediate School will be vacant, with the fifth- and sixth-graders who attend there to be moved, the sixth-graders to Jackson, Hemker said.
“So it makes sense for these kids who are friends with each other and staff members as a school to move forward as a group,” she added. “The opportunity in essence to have an empty building in Monroe to move into will save some of the trauma they would experience if they were shuffled to a new school and didn’t know the teachers and didn’t know the kids.”
Hemker offered that “everyone (in the district) could take a 6 percent pay cut.”
“No matter what options are out there, you’ll have an unhappy group,” Hemker said.
She opined that “the general public is blissfully unaware… of what the state requires.”
“They don’t understand the ins and outs of that because they don’t have to,” she said. “As long as the students go to school and are happy,” parents are happy, she added.
“They don’t happen to know all those other details,” she said, remarking that the state legislature provides “a different pot of money” for particular purposes.
“We can’t just use the money that goes into Truman’s roof into money for more teachers,” she said. “It would violate state law.”
The suggestions made in the hearings would be “documented” and “shared” with the board, Little-Kaumo said.
“We know that it’s disappointing to a lot of people. I’m sure it seems unfair to parents who attended in the area,” Hemker said. “If somebody can come up with a great option with less money, let us know, but I don’t see a better option than that one that has been proposed already.”
She remarked that the spirit of Jackson is “not those four walls.”
“As long as we can be interacting with the same kids we are used to and they can be interacting with us, that’s the most important part,” she said. “Not the building.”
“I’m sure glad I’m not a board member or a superintendent right now,” she added.
Overall, the 2018-19 fiscal year is estimated to be the district’s sixth highest among the past 13 years in terms of guaranteed funding.