Two rural schools will be closed to head off a projected budget deficit of $3.6 million for the Portage School District in 2013 and 2014.
An undercurrent of emotion filled the room Tuesday during a special meeting of the Portage School Board as members voted on a compromise proposal that will close Caledonia and Fort Winnebago elementary schools and move all sixth-graders to the Bartels Middle School.
Lewiston Elementary School will stay open because it has six classrooms and the others have four, so there’s room for students to choose the school if they want.
Board president Kristen Skolarz and District Administrator Charles Poches worked on a proposal that all members unanimously voted for and approved.
The estimated savings to the district by closing the two rural schools will be $720,000.
Board members tabled the nonrenewal of the contract with the River Crossing Environmental Charter School because there might be opportunities to have it operate in an existing space. However, the need to find $100,000 to cut remains.
“It’s a good program, but we really do need it to be done on its own. Move to a different type of contract,” said member Steve Pate.
About 40 people, a couple with “Save Our Schools” signs, attended the event. Four people addressed the board with their concerns about closing particular rural schools and one about saving the charter school.
“This was never, ever brought up as a rural versus in-town,” Poches said.
Skolarz said the public comment that school board members don’t listen to community members isn’t taken lightly.
“I think the main thing that has come out of these meetings we can be proud of is all of our passion for children. We can also be proud of the culture the district has created,” she said.
Member Dan Garrigan asked if the enrollment for the Lewiston Elementary School was on a “first come, first serve” basis. The concern being if too many parents want to enroll their children, he said, and some would be turned away. Poches said that would fall under board policy for enrollment.
“You will not have that problem,” said Debra Schultz. She addressed the board as a representative and supporter for the Caledonia Elementary School.
The board decided not to go for an advisory referendum in November per their decision on the compromise proposal. Schultz said the board should support it because the proposal effects their property values.
“If they don’t like the decision we make then they can change us when our seat is up. I think we need to step up to the plate and make a decision,” said member Fred Reckling.
Member Steve Pate said the decision to close the two rural schools is probably one of the most difficult times of the 28 years he’s been on the board. He attended a one-room school, Pate said, and his mother fought hard to keep rural schools open to the point where they didn’t speak to the neighbors for 11 years because they had a different opinion.
“Times have changed and we have to address it. We’re out here a year ahead of this situation,” Pate said.
The real problem is the revenue caps placed on school districts, he said, which neither a Republican or a Democrat will touch because of property values. Reckling said Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature’s big cuts to state aid in education also dug the financial hole.
Also included in the compromise proposal:
• Restructure the middle school to reduce two staff members. (estimated savings is $150,000).
• Restructure the high school to reduce five staff members. (estimated savings is $375,000).
• Have a 2013 spring operational referendum of $2.6 million.
• Middle school updates of the air handlers/wiring in Little Theater, convert two computer labs for classrooms. (cost would be about $80,000).