No decision on Frontier schools

NEW MATAMORAS – After almost two hours of discussion, the Frontier Local Schools Board of Education chose to withhold a vote on whether it will close one of its three elementary schools for a later meeting, though school officials confirm that regardless of opinion, the district cannot afford to operate at its current state past the 2015-2016 school year.

Hoping to bring in more of the public for future meetings, the board passed a resolution with five “yes” votes that stated that if one of the elementary schools is closed next school year, the elementaries will move to a grade level system, where the first few grade levels will all be held in one building and the last few in the other.

The discussion brought in all viewpoints, but based on enrollment and operating costs, the argument has turned into one in which New Matamoras Elementary and Lawrence Elementary sit on what superintendent Bruce Kidder calls the “chopping block.”

If one school is closed, Kidder introduced the plan to make one school for the first few grades and the other for the last few.

“If we keep that K-6 concept, we can’t run efficiently,” Kidder said. “And efficiency gets me lower tax and millage rates, and the lower I can get that, the better of a chance we have of passing a levy.”

Last school year it cost Frontier $550,000 to operate Lawrence Elementary, $1.054 million for New Matamoras Elementary and $1.2 million for Newport Elementary.

“This (grade level) system would let us have just two teachers for each grade,” Kidder said. “We’d save by closing a building and we’d save on about four teachers.”

The budget guarantees that funding formulas will not change next school year or the one after, but once 2016-2017 comes, everything is up in the air.

Treasurer Frank Antill said the district stands to lose $250,000 by the end of the school year after making cuts, making the total amount available by summer to be between $690,000-$700,000, which is not quite enough to pay staff salaries for 40 days.

After a 9.2-mill property tax levy failed 85 percent to 15 percent in November, the district faces the dilemma of either closing one of its schools or trying to keep all three open but asking for about the same amount of money from taxpayers-an option board members agreed is not really realistic.

“Coming into this meeting I figured it would be impossible that you all would close New Matamoras. But from what I’m hearing…what kind of decision would it be to put money in a school that is aged behind belief…versus a brand new school that you still have to pay for if you shut it down,” said John Schmidt, mayor of New Matamoras. “We put you all in here to use common sense.”

Lawrence has lower operating costs, but New Matamoras is a newer school without the maintenance problems that Lawrence faces.

“When you make a decision, I will fill these hallways with people who will be irate,” Schmidt said. “(New Matamoras) was built so we didn’t have to bus kids 17 miles and risk killing one of them.”

Board member Kurt Bohlen said that being from Lawrence, he is strongly against closing any of the schools, though he realized the reality.

“Lawrence is where my heart is. This decision has kept me up at night. I don’t know which way to go,” Bohlen said.

Kidder said regardless of what school would be closed if it came to that, every community would be at a disadvantage, as busing would become more complicated and enrollment might suffer if people choose to take their children out of the district because of the decision.

“No matter where the kids go, there’s going to be kids on a bus for an hour and a half. That’s why this levy was important. I would have voted for it if it was 15 mills,” Bohlen said.

Board President Justin Hoff expressed frustration that this had gone on for years without a vote, and wanted to take it to a vote as soon as possible.

“This is about what we need to keep Frontier here,” Hoff said, stressing that the arguing between regions needed to turn into compromise. “We’ve heard the same numbers for three years. It’s time to make a decision and be done with it.”

Kidder said if he were given the choice, he would close Lawrence and consolidate students into the remaining two; where K-3 could be held in Newport and 4-6 would be held in New Matamoras.

“This is going to disrupt communities. Nobody wins in this scenario, but all the communities are going to have to make sacrifices,” Kidder said.

By closing a school and moving to a grade level system, the district could possibly afford to put a levy on the ballot in November that is about half of the original levy of 9.2 mills.

Closing New Matamoras could save $170,000, where closing Lawrence would save $120,000.

After the reality of numbers set in, some in attendance were still speaking actively about keeping all three schools open and just trying the same levy again.

“Right now I’m a sinking ship,” Kidder said. “If they gave me that 9.2 mill we wouldn’t be talking about this right now.”

The board plans to vote on whether or not the district will close a school and if so, which one, as soon as possible, but wants more time to receive public input at its monthly meetings.

Bohlen urged the three communities to elect an unofficial spokesperson to speak at future meetings to “reduce chaos” as much as possible.