SOUTH WAYNE—The sale of the school building in Gratiot was denied by the voting citizens present at a special meeting of the electorate of the Black Hawk School District.
Nearly 100 people filled the cafeteria at the school in South Wayne on Monday, March 19, to voice their opinions on the school’s situation. In October 2011, the school’s board of education voted to close the school in Gratiot and conduct classes for grades 4k-12 from the facility in South Wayne instead of dividing the students between the middle school in Gratiot and elementary and high schools in South Wayne. Later it was determined that the village of Gratiot owns the land that the school building, owned by the school district, sits on.
Many at the meeting said they were discouraged that there wasn’t more open discussion before the board decided to close the building. They want the board to look at other options before taking action.
Following a presentation of the school’s financial situation and proposed changes by district administrator Willy Chambers, the resolution to allow the sale of the Gratiot School failed by a vote of 57-39.
Chambers said he tried to provide the best numbers he could without knowing enrollment and state aid numbers. He estimates the school will save $375,388.80 in the 2012-13 school year, of which $147,516.75 is associated with the closing of the school building in Gratiot. With the sale of the building no longer an option, the school will have to pay to maintain the building, eating at the proposed savings.
“We had a $1.2 million fund balance at the beginning of this year,” Chambers said. “If we keep eating into that fund balance, we’re not going to have operational monies to continue to run.”
The school had a $400,000 deficit this year that wasn’t covered by the state aid or taxes. The savings projected total 3 percent of the school’s $5 million budget.
“That 3 percent is a very large chunk of the fund balance,” Chambers said. “The fund balance is what we need to keep at a reasonable amount so we don’t need to do any short-term borrowing. The state also recommends keeping a minimum of 10 percent in the fund balance.”
Jason Figi, clerk of the school board, said the savings associated with closing the school are reoccurring. “They may not look like much now, but over several years it will add up,” Figi said.
Chambers predicts the school will lose another $300,000 in state aid in 2012-13.
“This isn’t going to solve everything, but we have to start somewhere,” Chambers said.
Citizens at the meeting offered ideas of other budget cuts. One said the governor gave the schools the tools to cut costs by negotiating with teachers. Chambers said that option could cause many of the teachers to leave the district, leading to less continuity in the teaching program at the school.
Many at the meeting asked to go to referendum. Chamber said the rules have changed and it takes 70 days to get on a ballot, pushing the election to the August primary.
Some of the changes proposed for the 2012-13 school year include Chambers switching from district administrator and middle school principal to district administrator and director of special education. Elementary and high school principal and athletic director Jerry Mortimer had a one-year contract and will not return next year. In his place, Cory Milz, current biology/physical science teacher, will become the dean of students. The school will still need to hire an athletic director.
Chambers showed a tentative schedule that accommodates all grade levels in the same building. He said some of the teachers will have both middle and high school students. Most of the teachers will remain stationary, although a few will have to be mobile to make the schedule work. Chambers said there are rooms on the second floor above the elementary wing that can be used if necessary, but he doesn’t plan for them being used as classrooms at this time.
Chambers said if it was voted down he would recommend the resolution be on the agenda for the annual meeting to go for another vote.
“By then you’ll know—we’ll be a month into the school year,” Chambers said. “If you continue to vote no, we’ll either pay for the destruction of the building or maintaining it.”
Chambers said he did not know how much it would cost to maintain the building, which would have to be minimally heated and cooled throughout the year. He said the insurance on an empty building is more than when the building is in use.
Chambers said he had an estimate of $115,000 to demolish and bury the building. He said the board did not intend to have the building demolished; they wanted to sell it to allow a reputable reuse of the building.