No plans to close rural schools
School board discusses study
By Scott Bellile
Theoretically closing two rural New London elementary schools would cost district taxpayers more money than keeping the buildings, a recent analysis by the New London School District of concluded.
The district has no plans to close Sugar Bush Elementary School in the town of Maple Creek or Readfield Elementary School in the town of Caledonia. However, the New London School Board decided in October the topic is worth discussing as the district considers another referendum in 2018 to catch up on overdue building maintenance.
The board has not approved pursuing a referendum. Conversations on the matter will continue at board meetings in the coming months.
Board member Terry Wegner brought up the subject of what to do with Sugar Bush and Readfield during a special school board meeting at Parkview Elementary School on Oct. 23.
There he told the board that if the district were to encourage voters to pass a facilities improvement referendum, it must first know the answer to the frequently asked question of whether all six public schools are still necessary.
“We can’t stand there and say, ‘Well I don’t know what would happen if we did this,’” Wegner said. “[Taxpayers] are entitled to expect us to have that answer. … Are we better trying to consolidate and build new onto some of the [in-town] schools to accommodate the [rural] population moving in? Or are we better off to hold the buildings we have and stay at six? I don’t know that answer.”
Board President Kim Schroeder responded that additional factors would need to be considered before jumping to the conclusion that rural schools are not worth the expense.
“It can’t always be about finance especially when we’re talking about transporting small children a long distance,” Schroeder said. “I mean some of them are already on the bus by 7 a.m. There’s transportation costs. There’s so many things that have to go into this. You want to keep them close to their environment, close to their sitters, close to whoever picks them up after school because [otherwise] you’re shifting big, whole communities that are thriving currently. And so there’s just a lot.
“It’s a good question to ask and it’s a good question that we should have conversation on, but I don’t want this to get out in the community thinking like we’re doing something with the schools because that’s not even on the radar,” Schroeder said.
Wegner agreed with her but said his point is the board cannot automatically assume it must keep six public schools just because it supports community schools.
“We have a fiduciary responsibility as a board,” Wegner said. “It’s our primary responsibility: make sure that we’re spending tax dollars appropriately and we’re getting the most we can out of every dollar we spend.”
Closures would not yield payoff
Following the October discussion, Business Services Director Joe Marquardt conducted a cost analysis on keeping versus closing Readfield and Sugar Bush. He announced that it would be more cost-effective to keep both schools open during a special board meeting on Nov. 27 at Sugar Bush.
Currently Sugar Bush has 135 students enrolled with a possible drop to 125 students in the coming years, Marquardt said. The staff directory lists 23 employees including Principal Kristin Grable, who also heads Readfield.
Readfield has 150 students with a potential decline to 140 students forecasted, according to Marquardt. The staff directory lists 26 workers including Grable.
Marquardt told the board that he asked his counterpart in a similarly sized district, the Unified School District of Antigo, how school closures worked there.
“And their response is … it’s very, very, very difficult,” Marquardt said. “And they just mentioned that their schools were under a hundred [student enrollment] and they just had to because of the dynamics that they’re in. They had 12 elementary schools. We have four. So it’s just different dynamics.”
Marquardt said the quantifiable cost savings for closing New London’s rural schools would be low, in the ballpark of $150,000.
Layoffs would produce minimal cost savings. Marquardt said theoretically speaking, the district could cut an office secretary, a custodian, a certified staff member and an educational assistant if closing schools. However, the number of teachers would not be expected to change.
As far as the rural school buildings, Marquardt said: “There could be some utilities savings if you got rid of the buildings completely. If you still left the buildings there or they were vacant you would still be using utilities, and if you had insurance, if you still owned the building you would want to make sure you insure it until you decided what you would do.”
Parkview and Lincoln in New London each have only one open classroom available, not nearly enough space to handle an influx of more than 100 children in the event of a closure, Marquardt said.
“So you’re looking at [constructing a new] 50,000- to 60,000-square foot school using Lincoln as a footprint example, and that would be 275 bucks a square foot, so we’d be looking at $16 million to $18 million as potential cost,” Marquardt said.
The district would also need to buy land to build a new elementary school.
Another obstacle would be transportation, Marquardt said. Due to the long and narrow boundaries of the School District of New London, Marquardt said some middle and high school students outside of town presently board the bus by 6:30 a.m. to ride into the city. He doubted elementary students could handle a 90-minute bus ride that early.
Wegner said that many Sugar Bush students living by the business district on New London’s north side are actually several miles closer to the in-town elementary schools. He said the district in a sense buses students to Sugar Bush “to populate the building.” Marquardt disagreed with that.
Grable said the in-town elementary schools would not have room for New London’s north-side students anyway.
Open enrollment would take the biggest toll on the district if it closed grade schools, Marquardt said.
Due to the geography in the southern part of the district, half of the School District of New London students living in around Dale and Medina already open enroll into Hortonville Area School District because HASD is closer to home, Marquardt said. It would be impossible to tell how many more would leave New London if Readfield shut down.
“We don’t want to survey the parents and say, ‘Hey, if we closed Readfield would you stay in New London?’” Marquardt said.
“I always feel like you should never be afraid to discuss a controversial topic, but I think it has to be at a point where you’re at the point of no other means to meet the needs of students,” Marquardt said.
He said that is not the case here and the Sugar Bush and Readfield structures are still worth putting money into.
Costs to fix the schools
Marquardt said Readfield would cost around $1 million to bring up to date. Improvements would be made to security, climate control, masonry, windows, lighting, asphalt, restroom plumbing and well and water storage.
Sugar Bush would cost approximately $750,000. Improvements would include security, the fire alarm system, climate control, masonry, windows, roofing, lighting, asphalt, building plumbing and the water filtration system.
“Even if the cost to repair two schools would be $3 million, it’s still more economical in the long run than building another school and taking on debt and I think really sacrificing the communities that have elementary schools that are here for those families,” Marquardt said. “If we get to a point where we dip below a hundred students, we may need to look at doing something different. But until that becomes a very foreseeable data point, I don’t think that that makes sense.”
Longtime school board member Virginia Schlais said she cannot recall the board taking action lately to “truly invest in our rural schools,” noting that the construction of Lincoln Elementary and New London High School in the 1990s and an addition to Parkview Elementary about a decade ago were all in town.
School board member and Sugar Bush alum John Heideman said the sinks have been worn out since he was a Sugar Bush student. He said he is frustrated by what he views as a lack of spending on maintenance at the rural schools.
“So we’re looking at continuing debt load that we have while we have needs in these two outlying buildings that have clearly not been taken care of,” Heideman said.
Marquardt, who did not want to criticize past boards’ or administrations’ spending decisions, reminded the board that New London has one of the lowest revenue limits in Wisconsin for a district of its size.
Revenue limits, imposed upon school districts by the state legislature in 1993, cap how much money a school district can receive through state general aid and property taxes.
New London is permitted to spend $9,263 per student in revenue authority whereas the state average is over $10,300.
Regardless of the differences in opinion on some matters, Marquardt told the board the discussion was helpful as the district continues planning for the future.
Marquardt said 86 to 90 percent of participants in a district survey conducted this fall indicated they “supported or strongly supported” investing in facilities maintenance, energy efficiency and safety and security at New London schools.
The district expects to release the survey results in February.
Elementary school sustainability will be revisited at the special board meeting on Jan. 22 at 6 p.m. at Lincoln Elementary School, 201 E. Washington St. The meeting will include a tour of Lincoln’s facilities. The meeting is open to the public.