Neenah Creek Elementary School in Wisconsin Dells will close at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
Wisconsin Dells Board of Education unanimously decided to close the building and consolidate services to Spring Hill Elementary School at its April 26 meeting at the high school on Brew Farm Road. No layoffs will occur as a result of the closure and any staff at Neenah Creek will be repositioned to other vacated positions in the school district. District Administrator Terry Slack said he doesn’t know what will happen to the building once it closes.
Closing Neenah Creek is part of cost reduction measures as a result of the district’s failed $4.8 million five-year operating referendum during the April 6 election. The board also approved to consolidate its 4K format for the 2021-22 school year to a full four-day model, a move estimated to save the district over $53,800.
The Briggsville based elementary school serves grades K-5 with 77 students, the lowest enrollment of each of the district’s five buildings. Only 38 students live in the attendance area. The building opened in 1993, when both Big Spring and Briggsville elementary schools shut down. It is located 12 miles east of Wisconsin Dells and serves areas on the district’s east side, including the town of Douglas, town of Jackson and town of New Haven. Slack mentioned declining population on the eastern side of the district and the district as a whole has been an issue.
Neenah Creek Elementary School won the National Blue Ribbon Award in 2007.
It isn’t the first time school officials considered closing the almost 30-year-old building and has been a topic of discussion for many years. In 2007, ceasing operations at Neenah Creek Elementary School was considered as a part of budget reductions if an operating referendum proposed for that year didn’t pass, said Deb Michel, district business manager. The referendum passed and the building did not close.
With less students living in the attendance area and additional classroom space at Spring Hill, Michel said keeping Neenah Creek open was “unsustainable.” She recommended closing the building would be the best decision for the district’s long-term financial health.
Financial numbers presented at the meeting show closing Neenah Creek Elementary School and consolidating those services will save the district about $368,478 for next year and in the future. Per pupil cost at the school is $14,325 per year.
Other restructuring costs and potential changes would reduce the estimated $620,000 deficit for next year by $542,603. The savings also include over $207,900 in attritions of three full-time equivalent positions retiring or resigning. Additional changes include moving funding for a school resource officer to Fund-80 and reducing English Language Learners services at the high school.
All those changes still leave a $77,000 deficit in next year’s budget, which Slack said could be filled with federal COVID-19 money the district is scheduled to receive. The school district also had a planned deficit of $900,000 for the 2020-21 school year, $500,000 less than the $1.4 million originally estimated with the district saving money on the bidding process for the high school’s new athletic fields. Money from the district’s fund balance was used to cover the shortfall.
Michel said revenue is going down while expenses continue to increase. She said closing Neenah Creek would allow Dells to “get pretty close” to a balanced budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year and allow administrators to spend the upcoming year preparing for another future operating referendum.
“It closes the deficit gap a bit but not entirely,” Michel said of the consolidation.
During public comment, several school district residents asked the board to keep the building open. Other members of the public also suggested forming a committee made up of school board, teachers and residents in the community to decide how to address the district’s financial issues.
Some district residents talked about the benefits of small class sizes, programs at the building that serve the community, and Neenah Creek’s track record with a high report card score from the state, which showed a 92.4 score (significantly exceeding expectations during the 2018-19 school year). Resident Gina Lidner, whose six children attended Neenah Creek, shared the many programs at the school that benefit the community, like the garden program, plant sales and family fun nights and the academic success Neenah Creek has seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We can all agree there is no perfect school but this rural school shouldn’t be punished because of a lack of preparing to budget for a new high school or to punish the community because (a) referendum failed,” Lidner said.
Jean Bartz decided to send her daughter, Claire, to Neenah Creek when their family moved to the area six years ago due to the small town feel and small class sizes. While she understands the financial constraints the district feels, she said there is also a cost benefit to keeping the building open with the score shown on the state report card and suggested the district find savings elsewhere. She shared a letter written by Claire asking school officials to consider keeping the building open, highlighting many aspects it offers, like the garden program and the “huge playground.”
William Crothers shared his own experience at the school and the lessons he learned, like manners, gardening and other life skills, when he attended in kindergarten through fifth grade.
“The teachers really cared for us at Neenah Creek they were in it for us,” Crothers said. “I know people in the Dells who choose to go to Neenah Creek just because it’s a better school… Sometimes when I woke up for school at Neenah Creek I was always happy to go to school, I was excited.”
Many of the school board members told the public the decision to close Neenah Creek wasn’t easy, especially since some of them are parents themselves and members of the community. Yet as elected officials it’s their duty to make sure financially responsibility is carried out and the district’s budget is balanced.
“Some of the conversations we’ve had aren’t easy,” said Jesse Weaver, a member of the school board whose two children attended Neenah Creek.
Weaver added more devastating cuts might have been considered if school officials didn’t make the decision to close Neenah Creek to keep providing an education for the entire district.
“As a Neenah Creeker I’m there with you, but we have responsibilities,” Weaver said. “Please, at the end of the day understand why we sit here and the choices we make.”
Board Member Jim McClyman said closing Neenah Creek has been discussed for years.
“Every year we come for our budget and we find and try to make excuses to keep this school open,” McClyman said. “This is the one year that we can do it with the least amount of detriment to our students, least amount of detriment to our staff and hopefully the least amount of detriment to our community. We don’t want to have a budget shortfall. Unfortunately, that’s what we are stuck with.”