|3/18/2020 2:50:00 PM|
The many twists and turns facing Ridgeway Elementary School
"This is not a school closure meeting as portrayed in social media."
That is how Dr. Jeff Jacobson explained what the meeting of the Building and Grounds committee last Wednesday, which just so happened to be held at the Ridgeway school.
And, it just so happens that Ridgeway is the school that could be closed at the end of the school year with a decision possible by this April.
So, is the sad tale of Ridgeway Elementary School.
RES is in a building that was constructed in 1939. Until 1963 it housed a complete school, K-12. In 1963 a consolidation with the Dodgeville School District was completed and the high school dissolved.
Since then, the building has housed various configurations of sub-high school classes. It started as its own entity, going through eighth grade. When the Middle School was created in Dodgeville it became K-4. Most recently it houses ELP, Kindergarten and grades 1-5. This year there were 52 students at the school with the projection for next year 53.
According to a handout provided by Jacobson there were 181 students housed at the facility in 2010-2011 with the highest number attending there in 2012-13 at 186.
RES has always been open to attendance for any student from the entire district. In fact, in 2013 RES received distinction as a Blue Ribbon School. However, Dr. Jacobson said that did not work the way it was hoped to when it comes to increased enrollment numbers.
"We thought it would work in our favor for enrollment at RES, but it did not," he said.
But that does not help the people who have students attending RES currently. They see the school as a safehaven for their children, a school that fosters learning, comradery and good citizenship. They see it as something worth saving.
Rearing its ugly head in the equation is a projected loss of 100 students throughout the district over the next four years. Dr. Jacobson presented data that backs up that projection. He told the B&G committee that the district will be impacted heavily. Figures he provided show the cost per student at DES at $7,917, DHS at $8,926, DMS at $10,012 and RES at $11,606.
Throw a couple zeros on those figures and it is quite a financial impact.
Add to that, the fact that not only is the building an old structure, but its infrastructure is showing its age too. Last winter the boiler failed a couple times and was put back in service by creative touches from the maintenance staff. Just to replace the boiler carries a $150,000 price tag, but sooner rather than later, the piping will have to be replaced too.
Then there is the asbestos problem.
When the district was disposing of the portables that had served RES for many years as temporary classrooms, there was a need for an asbestos inspection. At the same time the inspector looked at the tiles in RES, and told the district they have to come out. Cost of removing the asbestos is estimated at $39,800 with tile replacement, windows, a forced air furnace and playground improvements an additional $25,000.
For a total picture of costs, the removal of the portables was $18,500. That brings the "needs" list to $233,300.
Dr. Jacobson also provided ongoing costs of maintenance at $68,000 which includes utilities at $41,000, blacktopping/sealcoating at $13,000 and general upkeep at $14,000.
When asked what would happen if the present RES enrollment would be absorbed in Dodgeville, he said there would be room for them as it is a few to a grade level.
Closing RES has not been an action item and Jacobson said no decision would be made at the meeting.
"We are asking for your thoughts on how to move forward," Dr. Jacobson said, cautioning everyone to not fall into a trap of negativity.
During further discussion, Dr. Jacobson said at present there are 29 sections of regular ed in the district if combined that number could be 26 and there would still be under 20 students per classroom. He said the average cost associated with a teacher is $72,000 and combining classes would also result in fewer aides, office staff and maintenance staff.
When asked what he feels the potential savings would be, he answered $378,000.
Reducing staff would be done through attrition Dr. Jacobson predicts, saying "staff reduction will take care of itself in time."
When asked why the infrastructure needs were not planned for over time, Dr. Jacobson "We dragged our feet because we did not want to have to stand here like we are today. We delayed this day as long as we could. Five years ago we looked at the investment we would have to make and we just kept patching."
In answer to another question, Dr. Jacobson said the safety of the students was never an issue when it came to the asbestos problem.
The large crowd in attendance had several spokespersons who pointed frequently at the needs of the building constantly being overlooked, calling it a lack of concern for RES.
"We are starting to see the results of where having to catch up has led us," one person said.
Dr. Jacobson said the maintenance picture is just part of the issue. The enrollment numbers are what has brought about this discussion.
"If the numbers were different we would not be having this discussion," he said. "We could deal with the boilers and the asbestos but it is the enrollment numbers that make this a difficult decision."
"But Ridgeway's numbers are stable," one person pointed out.
"Even here we will start to see a decline," Dr. Jacobson said, pointing to the large number of students who will be leaving for the middle school soon and the low numbers coming in.
It was pointed out during discussion that over the years the district has fixed the roof at RES and upgraded the gym floor.
When asked about what determines the "per pupil cost," Dr. Jacobson said it is covered in a new federal law that the federal government is still trying to figure out.
When it was suggested the district does what it can to attract more kids, Dr. Jacobson said that would have to pay off in the long run and he considers that a dangerous step to take.
"Right now the options are to invest here or close the school," Dr. Jacobson said. "Ultimately it is the school board's decision. I can only provide them with the figures they need to work with."
During discussion it was pointed out that there have been several million dollars that have gone into improvements at Dodgeville High School and why didn't Ridgeway receive attention then? Dr. Jacobson said referendum money can only go for the project it was approved for and asked everyone to remember that every student today in lower grades will go to that high school.
Enrollment projections are a tricky thing, Jacobson pointed out.
"We felt the district was a little insulated because of EPIC, VORTEX and the access to Madison with Highway 151," he said. "But people drive through other districts on their way to work some take their kids with them."
There were 112 students who open enrolled out of the district last year and Dr. Jacobson said many of them were asked for their reason.
"Number one on the list was childcare," he said. "Location of their employment was second the ties to another district where parents attended was third."
It was pointed out that the board made a decision earlier to take the students with an IEP (individualized education plan) for needed help out of the district. One person who spoke said she had a student with needs and others who did not so she open enrolled them at Barneveld so they could stay together.
The same parent said part of her decision was the underlying concern every year that is if RES would remain open.
Dr. Jacobson agreed that parents do not want to hear that question year after year.
"The problem is, we have no real answers," he said. "We just have what is here in front of us to deal with."
The Ridgeway Marshall addressed the B&G committee and reminded them that people in Ridgeway are passionate about their school and recommended forming a committee from Ridgeway to work with the committee and look at this again.
"This community is trying to grow and is headed in the right direction," the Marshall said.
Dr. Jacobson said open enrollment runs through the month of April but families can actually request open enrollment at any time.
"A lot of planning has to go into what is next," he said. "Decisions need to be made in the spring, not in July."
A member of the Ridgeway Home and School group expressed frustration on how the district has responded to needs at RES.
"No matter how much we have pushed nothing gets done here," the person said. "We get promises but nothing gets done. It is not fair."
Dr. Jacobson pointed out that there is a two person maintenance staff and they get to things when they can.
"Other buildings have concerns too," he said.
"Ridgeway is a nice place to live and the last thing we need is a big empty building in the middle of the community," another person said.
"The board needs to hear from this community," Dr. Jacobson said. "Where this goes from here is up to the board. It is not a decision I have to make. It comes from the board and they need to think it through."
Tom McGraw, a school board member who grew up in Ridgeway, attended school there and his children have attended there addressed the meeting and said he is very concerned about the enrollment numbers.
"There has been talk of closure for years," he said.
McGraw strongly suggested meeting with members of the community as to what can we do from here?
"No one loves this school more than me," McGraw said.
It was pointed out that there is a new subdivision in Ridgeway with lots moving very quickly and the project is ready to move into phase 2.
"This should help support the school," one person said. "Ridgeway is suddenly growing faster than any other community in Iowa County. We need to work together and we would appreciate the opportunity."
Another person questioned why RES is not more visible on the school website.
"People looking at the district don't know we exist," the person said. "We need to be part of the district's promotion. We can't move forward if you close the school. We implore you not to do this."
The sentiments spilled over into Monday night's monthly meeting of the entire school board.
Jeanie Kamholz spoke first and tied in the song "RESPECT" along with it emphasizing the RES part of the song. She attended RES and learned that there are no cliques there. She sends her son there so he will have a good experience and she noted she lives in Dodgeville.
Kamholz noted that an online petition has been started to save the school and has generated 600 signatures in a single day.
Kimberly Allen reminded the board that the Home and School group has been successful raising money to support the school and make improvements for the safety of the students.
"It is hard to hear every year or so that the school will close," she said. "Ridgeway is a vibrant community and learning about this the past two weeks has presented problems."
Allen said there was talk of a charter school and a new building north of the community but nothing has happened. She supports committing to keeping the school open for another year.
Adrian Allen spoke to the board and asked for the community to have a seat at the table. He asked the board to address the issues.
"The curriculum and the staff at Ridgeway," he said. He added he is concerned with the maintenance and physical issues concerning Ridgeway. He also questioned the time frame for open enrollment and possible closure.
"If you would have come to us we could have explored some options," he said. "No matter what, we need to have a plan going forward and there is no plan now."
"We are asking for time," he said.
Mary Nelson, a former teacher at Ridgeway cautioned the board to be careful and to make any decisions concerning Ridgeway wisely.
Zach Bennett, a DHS graduate who now lives in Ridgeway and is a past president of the Ridgeway Advancement Association, showed a video depicting the good things that take place at RES.
"There is good work being done here," he said. "We ask that you have open discussion about the future of RES."
Steve Vosberg, a Ridgeway resident, asked the board to invest in RES.
"There has been a lack of investment in RES," he said. "There needs to be a collaborative effort between the board and Ridgeway about potential closing."
Later in the meeting the board asked Dr. Jacobson to meet with representatives from the Village and Town Board to discuss the future of RES further.
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