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Southland board votes to close elementary school

April 18, 2018 GMT

ADAMS — A somber end to a “waiting game,” Southland school officials voted unanimously on Monday to close the district’s elementary school in Rose Creek, effective about 14 months from now.

The school board’s decision will move the district’s students in grades K-5 — of which there are currently 185 — into the district’s middle school-high school building in Adams.

School Board Chairwoman Michelle Nelsen held back tears as she read aloud the resolution to close Southland Elementary, saying that declining enrollment and lack of funding had played major roles in the decision.

Around 40 people packed tightly into the small board room at Southland Middle and High School to hear the decision. Some had spoken earlier in the session to express their opinion on the issue.

Some felt that there was no easy answer to what could be “the right answer.”

“If we keep doing things the way we are, we’re gonna be left in the dust,” said Rodney Sprau of Elkton. “I don’t envy you guys at all. It’s a terrible thing. I guess I’m not suggesting anything on our current buildings. There is life after schools. With the rural economy, we can’t have schools everywhere. I don’t know what the real answer is.”

There were others who believed the closing was long overdue, and that it was time to address the issue instead of “putting it off.”

“We keep kicking a can down the road,” said Randy Stevenson of Dexter. “If we need to spend $10 million to $20 million to do something, then it needs to be spent.

“I just believe it’s time to pay the piper, move them all here, and spend the money we need to spend,” he said.

On the other hand, officials also faced criticism from taxpayers who said the school board was rushing into a decision, and that the district could afford to wait longer. However, such delays could lead to more extensive budget cuts, including the elimination of almost nine full-time teaching positions.

“I got a note to please just wait for 10 years. I’m sorry, we don’t have 10 years to wait,” said board member Patti Hamiliton. “This is my eighth year (on the board) and this is not a new subject.”

If it were to be maintained, the elementary school would need more than $1.6 million in updates. Instead, officials hope that closing the school will save more than $510,000 per year in operating costs. Meanwhile, the Adams building needs updated heating, cooling and ventilation systems and other improvements, to cost an estimated $7.4 million.

Failure to decide the issue would have sent Southland into statutory operating debt, which would have cost the district state aid and brought in the state to oversee Southland’s finances, and possibly dissolve the district.

The district’s general fund (savings account) has dropped from $2.9 million in fiscal year 2011-12 to about $909,000 in 2015-16. The projected general fund balance for 2017-18 is about $1.3 million.

“We tried to show you projections on where we are at in terms of expenses. ...’Why can’t we hang on for another year? We cut things,” Nelsen said. “We’ve cut things like art (and) a busing route. We haven’t hired back teachers at the elementary school.

“We’re (risking) losing programming every single day and everything we hold dear,” Nelsen said. “Teachers don’t have money for paper for crafts. Funding in education is not where we would want to be. We are the last of a dying breed to be in two buildings. It’s a difficult decision to make and none of us are happy about this.”

Other nearby districts, including Hayfield, exemplify a continuing struggle faced by many rural school districts.

“We don’t have to be like them, but we shouldn’t be blind to what’s happening,” said Wayne Kiefer, board treasurer. “They (Hayfield) made tough decisions. What will not work out is by doing nothing. If we don’t face this (now), we’re gonna have an unsustainable school district.”

What’s next

Tthe closure will take effect June 30, 2019, according to Superintendent Jeff Sampson.

This gives Southland one more school year to take steps to transition elementary school students and staff into the Adams facility.

There are hopes to have a bond referendum for voters in November, to help with necessary renovations and updates, which would likely be less than last year’s failed $24 million request, according to Sampson.

To do this, officials approved working with School Perspectives, a company that will help formulate a survey to send out to Southland residents to gauge a better understanding on what each household’s tax tolerance would be, and what ideas are they wanting to explore as a priority.

Recently, a farmer approached the board with a letter of intent to donate land as a possible site to build a centralized school building in Dexter. A petition collected about 200 signatures asking officials to look into it as an option.

The Southland School Board will discuss additional information about building plans in a special session April 23.