With a packed crowd of approximately 70 residents and staff in the audience, the River Ridge School Board decided that they would make a major change for the next school year, moving the seventh and eighth grade class levels from the middle school in Bloomington to the high school/elementary school complex in Patch Grove.
For many attending, the move seemed like a way to push for consolidating all of the school operations at Patch Grove prior to an expected referendum on the subject next April.
During the approximately three hour meeting, the school board voted unanimously to move the seventh and eighth grades to Patch Grove, a decision that leaves just the fifth and sixth grades in Bloomington.
"Sometimes you have to make the choices," Board President Bill Mergen said of not being able to keep things the same in the district. Mergen painted a dire picture to the audience of where the district sits - the district can do nothing, run through its fund balance and be broke within a few years, leading to dissolution, ask the voters for $800,000 to update and maintain the campuses in both Bloomington and Patch Grove, or move all the classes to one site.
"This is staring River Ridge in the face," Mergen told the crowd.
District Administrator Lee Pritzl said that the school wanted to inform and get residents' input on the choices the district faces, which is why letters went out to everyone living within the district about the issues discussed Wednesday evening. "We spent the postage because it was that important," Pritzl said, noting the district had not sent out a letter like that before to everyone.
Many people had a problem with the original agenda, which had the seventh and eighth grade question to be handled before the board reviewed the assessment studies conducted on the Patch Grove and Bloomington buildings. Some also wondered if the move should take place before a referendum could be given to the voters.
"It sounds like the cart will be in front of the horse," said Matt Vogt on the move. "Does it need to be decided tonight?"
"We talked about this for three years," Mergen said of making a move in the middle school.
"We are affecting children, whatever we do or don't do," Pritzl added, saying if the district waits two years to make a move, that means students will be waiting two years.
Several questioned the move for the upcoming year, feeling the move showed a preference to one campus in Patch Grove.
"People are going to say 'why keep it open for two grades?" Pritzl noted after a number of people in the audience mirrored that sentiment. He stated that in the upcoming discussion on what to do in prelude to a referendum, the people of the district will have to decide if it is important to keep two schools.
Both Pritzl and Mergen stated the district has seen a 200-pupil decline since the Bloomington and West Grant school districts merged in the 1990s. "We're a rural district, and we're getting more rural every day," Mergen stated, which Pritzl followed by saying in the past month they were told families of eight students will be leaving the district next year because the parents found jobs away from the area.
A number of ideas and questions were raised about all of the options and issues the school district has in dealing with a fiscal problem caused by declining enrollment and budget caps that are likely to decrease while costs increase.
One resident wondered why the cost of travel for teachers between the two facilities is approximately $25,000 a year. "It’s only eight miles round trip," said the woman.
Principal Rod Lewis stated that the cost is for 13 staff members who split time between the two facilities, with the reimbursement around 50 cents a mile.
Lewis added that even bigger than the cost of the travel expenses is all the lost classroom time between teachers and students. "That is important," Lewis said.
During the meeting, the impact of the teachers being shuffled between the two campuses was discussed, specifically from parents wondering what affect it had on when their children who asked for help when the teacher was in another building, and how the school was trying to compensate.
Karen Buffalo stated that for many students, other instructors attempt to fill the void. "The teachers are gone, but they know where they can find help," Buffalo said.
Board member Lea Breuer asked the parents of middle school students in the audience if they had any issues with traveling teachers affecting their students.
One parent with two daughters said she has noticed issues this year, and while the instructors are trying hard to have a presence, nothing can beat that direct contact. "You can email as much as you can," the parent said.
Another parent said she was appreciative of the efforts staff have made to compensate for those other teachers traveling between buildings, helping in study halls, or in the case of music classes, letting students to go talk to other teachers after the principle portion of the class has taken place.
Buffalo stated her desire to keep the middle school its own separate entity, feeling that it has allowed students and staff to set up a special atmosphere. "The middle school has a good spirit there, and if you move them, it will all be lost."
Lewis said that when he came to River Ridge after being a teacher in a middle school, he loved the identity the middle school had, and always favored that. But in recent years, he is seeing more and more what opportunities and flexibility would be offered by having all of the staff and students under one roof. Lewis added that whatever comes about, that he would work to make sure that the middle school kept its own identity, even if it was in Patch Grove. "Those are great things, and that is the challenge for us to make that identity here."
At least one person in the audience played devil's advocate on the identity idea, feeling there could still be separation under one roof. "You say we don't have an elementary school experience, we don't have high school experience then?" Brett Clark asked in relation to Buffalo's thoughts.
"What is bringing us to this point?" Kim Ellis asked about the changes, feeling that moves make take away from the quality of education being offered. Board President Mergen said the current format is forcing the district to duplicate a number of services, and with tightening budgets, not making a change may mean closing the doors.
"I believe they will get lost in the shuffle," Ellis said of a consolidation to one campus.
"Do you think they will get less of an education?" Mergen asked right back. "This is about efficiency."
Again and again, residents stated their concerns about the identity of the middle school, and about middle and high school students mixing together, and potential problems.
Pritzl pointed out that in school, teachers would have a greater presence in the halls to reduce any issues. He added that now, every day students from elementary up to high school intermix, unsupervised, when they hop on buses at the beginning and end of the day.
Some wondered if there may be a fix to the southwest in Cassville, which also has declining enrollment and student enrollment smaller than River Ridge's. Some suggested at the meeting a possible grouping with that district on the high school, since they cooperate with a few athletic teams now.
Mergen rebutted the idea, saying they tried but there was no reciprocation. "They have no desire to talk about consolidation, not now or in the near future," Mergen said.
Some wondered if the Patch Grove facility had enough room for the seventh and eighth grade levels, which Lewis responded that there was enough room, although they may have to move some classes around to accommodate the needs for handicap accessibility.
Lewis said that the move may offer more opportunities for middle school students as well, allowing them to take agricultural and technical education classes, if the schedule allows.
Some brought up issues the district had concerning the size of the Patch Grove cafeteria, and the ability to handle the additional students. Lewis said the district has made strides in how students move through lunch, and feels the building can accommodate the additional load.
One wrinkle that may cause issues is the cooperation with St. Mary's Catholic School, which sends students to participate in instrumental music and other programs.
Other items that were brought up to reduce the impact of teachers traveling was adding block scheduling.
After the public discussion, the board talked about the facilities assessment study. Dave Cihasky from ADG Architects, which conducted the study, was not at the meeting due to a work-related conflict, and spoke via telephone to share the study with the audience. Cihasky shared the same information with the crowd as he had with the district's building and grounds committee a few weeks earlier, pointing out the issues of both the Bloomington and Patch Grove facilities, noting that the primary issues at both facilities dealt with a lack of air flow in the buildings, how each has heating and ventilation units that are antiquated, reaching the end of their expected lives, and would not meet modern code requirements.
Cihasky shared with the audience the recent air quality results that had recently been released. In portions of Bloomington, there were high counts of fungal material in carpets, elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the classrooms near the boiler room because of backdraft issues, while the underground air tunnels in Patch Grove have moisture and radiation issues.
He went on to say that in their current condition, the facilities do not even meet the code of when they were installed.
"Should we even open the doors?" got asked from the audience.
"We have complaints throughout the year," Pritzl said of health issues. "The doctors cannot figure out what’s going on."