November 10, 2016
The sadness in Ashley Johnston’s eyes was apparent as the other six Greene County School Board members cast votes to approve shutting down the intermediate school in Grand Junction after this school year during a special meeting Wednesday night.
Johnston was the only vote of dissent in the 6-1 decision to close the building.
Johnston, who attended school in Grand Junction, failed in a last-ditch effort to at least temporarily delay closing the school by presenting what she called “Plan C” after Greene County Superintendent Tim Christensen presented “Plan A” and “Plan B” to save more than $330,000 next year due to declining enrollment.
The district’s certified enrollment was down 50 students from last year from 1198 to 1148. State aid is just more than $6,600 per certified student.
Johnston’s plan included shutting down the 100-year-old middle school in Jefferson instead of the intermediate building in Grand Junction.
“If it’s a better fit — not having to use the portable buildings (at the middle school) — I think we can do some rearranging to fit (grades) 5 through 8 in that building,” she told the board. “Obviously we need to close a building. We have to have a plan for the SBRC (School Budget Review Committee) tomorrow on how we’re going to reduce costs. My recommendation is to go before them and say we are going to close a building, but we need more time.”
Johnston estimated her plan would save around $280,000, not as much as the $333,000 estimated savings from closing the intermediate school, which was “Plan A.”
About 270 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students will be displaced when the intermediate school closes next year. The 90 or so fourth-graders will be integrated into the expanded elementary in Jefferson, while fifth- and sixth-graders will go to the middle school in Jefferson. Temporary portable classrooms may be necessary at the middle school to accommodate around 200 more students.
“Plan B” consisted of reducing 2½ full-time teachers at the elementary school, one full-time music teacher, two or three full-time career and technical education teachers and limiting the amount of college courses students are allowed to take.
“Plan B” was estimated to save between $285,000 and $331,000, but almost every board member said they were against cutting any more teachers after being forced to do so last year.
Christensen said a Facility Study Committee met in May 2013 to give the district a direction moving forward.
“What came out of that was that we needed to get down to two buildings to become as efficient as possible and offer students as many programs as possible,” he said. “A plan has been in place. This isn’t a willy-nilly thing that was just thrown out there.”
Johnson made a motion to approve “Plan C,” but it died do to lack of a second.
Other members said they had major concerns with her plan.
Christensen and board member Sam Harding each voiced concerns about middle-school students who take advanced math classes at the high school now. They said it would be much more difficult if middle-schoolers were in Grand Junction.
“Plus, we still have to keep using the gym (at the middle school) because it’s the only competition gym we have,” Harding said.
“The heating system heats the gym and the building, so we’re not going to save much money on heat. And the way the electrical system is wired there will still be power fed into that building.”
Board member John McConnell pointed out that the intermediate school has problems that would be expensive to fix if they kept the building open.
“These aren’t $100,000 fixes, these are $5 million fixes,” he said.
Multiple members also pointed out that the intermediate building isn’t handicap-accessible on the second and third floors.
Grand Junction City Councilman Pierre Kellogg — a 1989 East Greene graduate — suggested building a new school between Jefferson and Grand Junction.
“People are upset that everything is in Jefferson,” Kellogg told the board. “If you want to build a state-of-the-art campus, why don’t you put it out in the country between the towns? You’d still be down to two buildings, but you’d lose that perception that everything has to be in Jefferson.”
Board member Dr. David Ohrt explained that the cost of building a new school to accommodate middle- and high-school students from scratch would cost even more than the $19.4 million bond issue that failed in September.
Ohrt said he and his family could live anywhere, but choose to live in Greene County.
“I know people like to point fingers, but the reason we stay here is because of the good education our child is getting and the cooperation we get from the administration,” he said. “It’s not the buildings, it’s the people who work with us. The buildings are only tools.”
Multiple attendees walked out immediately after the vote was made to close the school, but before the board unanimously approved the “Plan A” Request for Modified Supplemental Growth that needed to be to the Iowa School Budget Review Committee by today.
District Business Manager Brenda Muir explained that because the deadline was so tight she had prepared paperwork for both “Plan A” and “Plan B.”
The Grand Junction City Council will discuss its options about what to do with the intermediate building after it closes next spring at its meeting on Monday at 7 p.m. in the community center.