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Elmbrook decides school closing trumps repurposing a building

Debate about which school to shutter continues

Aug. 24, 2011

Converting Swanson and Burleigh elementary schools into three-section schools and moving administrators into the remaining space is no longer an option for the Elmbrook School District - the potential savings just aren't great enough.

But the School Board continues to consider closing Tonawanda or Hillside elementary schools - or both - or maybe closing a larger, five-section school like Burleigh or Swanson.

Residents have told the board they see merit in closing a larger, five-section school. It could prevent a situation in which one of the smaller, three-section schools is closed next year - and the other is closed a few years later, drawing out redistricting upheaval, Superintendent Matt Gibson said.

After Tuesday's School Board discussion - which resulted in an end to discussion of repurposing a building - administrators now plan to bring information back on the benefits and drawbacks of three options: closing a big school, closing a small school and closing two small schools. The repurposing options were taken out of consideration due to an estimated $45,000 cost savings, compared with $1.3 million per small school closing and roughly $1.6 per large school closing.

Board President Tom Gehl said he anticipates a final decision in November and the school closure to go into effect for the 2012-13 school year.

Many issues to consider

To help further narrow the options, the board will consider factors such as operational and long-term capital maintenance cost savings, logistics related to balancing the feeder system and minimizing travel distance, the need for flexibility to respond to enrollment fluctuations and reducing the impact on the municipalities.

Board members said they want to see land values and potential sales prices as part of the cost discussion.

Administrators said the greatest cost savings would come through "class size smoothing," the ability to fill open seats so class sizes are as close to maximum as possible, thereby reducing the need for extra staff.

Moving a smaller school's population into a larger school provides more sections to "smooth" into.

"Our large schools are our most efficient operations, and I would be inclined to cross those off the list now," board member Kathryn Wilson said.

On the other hand, closing a larger school likely would result in more operational cost savings and perhaps a better land sale. Swanson is the most marketable property, district officials agreed.

Any decision will hurt

Swanson parents said they've already fought successfully to keep their school and don't want another battle. The school ties Brookfield's south side together, they said.

Selling a large school greatly takes away the district's flexibility, Gehl said. By closing one small school now, the district could keep an eye on enrollment and budgetary problems and have a solution in reserve.

Elm Grove President Neil Palmer worries families will leave the village or not move in if Tonawanda closes. The loss of families in the area could cut into the projected cost savings.

Kerri Webber plans to send her child to private school if Hillside closes in Brookfield.

"It's the most charming, beautiful school I've ever seen, but I have a plan B," Webber said.

It saddened Burleigh parent Nancy Kennedy to hear people say they'd rather leave the district than send their kids to the school her children have attended.

"At Burleigh, we would be welcoming, and the school is amazing," she said.

Parent Erin Tabor urged the board and the crowd to focus the decision on dollars, not emotions.

"Our district is in a financial crisis," she said. "This can't be an argument about who has a better school community."

Next step

WHAT: Elmbrook School Board will hold a work session on closing an elementary school

WHEN: 5:30 to 9 p.m. Sept. 6

WHERE: Central Administration Office, 13780 Hope St.

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