by Cynthya Porter
It is with no small amount of cynicism that I watch the leaders of District 861 machinate to close elementary buildings, as I sat through these antics for many years as an education reporter, and the story is always the same. The only way the district can survive, they say, is to either close elementary buildings or slash the most beloved extracurricular activities. I witnessed this dialogue time and again, and I think they have omitted some very important details.
Our elementary enrollment is stable and has been for some time. Our current elementary buildings are not vast wastelands of vacant space, nor are they decrepit buildings that can’t be maintained at ordinary cost. The whole “deferred maintenance” subject is smoke and mirrors, in my experience, as costly items on the list – sometimes stretching out for years - are used to sway a push for a referendum or an argument to close schools, but those numbers are exaggerated guestimates that may or may not even be spent. I recall light fixture and boiler replacements projects on the deferred maintenance list years ago that drove the perceived cost of maintenance through the roof, with the district only acknowledging years later that it received rebates and grants to pay for the projects and those deferred maintenance dollars didn’t affect the district’s budget. What I learned after 10 years of staring at those deferred maintenance figures is that the numbers can be whatever district officials need for them to be to get something passed.
The same goes for per pupil space and the supposed surplus or dearth of it in a district. First, there is no official number that is universally accepted as standard, and neither is there any real rulebook for what is measured to calculate square footage. It is another figure that can be massaged or represented in virtually limitless ways to reinforce an argument. Of course, it stands to reason that, since baby boomers are no longer an exploding school-age population, that some of the district’s buildings may have some extra space. But the district has rid itself of several elementary buildings already in the last decade, so is the surplus of space really in elementary buildings? If the district is honest, let’s see a breakdown of per-pupil space by building.
And if this extra space has been a long-standing problem, then why on earth has Community Education taken up residence in Central Elementary? Why wasn’t that building sold years ago? Is it perhaps because that is a less popular budget reduction to at least some on the School Board? It’s absurdity to continue owning and occupying that building while having conversations about closing well-used and much-loved elementary schools.
I think I can see what’s coming. Since birthrates are stable and so is elementary enrollment, more school closures will put District 861 precariously on the brink of not having enough space in its elementaries. Suddenly, the per-pupil space will be wholly inadequate and the district will shove a giant new elementary school down the community’s throat because they will say there isn’t an alternative. And perhaps they will threaten to move the fourth graders to the middle school in order to cause enough panic to get the community to agree to a new building. But no one will be talking about the fact that the academic performance of fifth graders fell like a stone for years after being taken out of elementary environments and stuck in a school with teenagers.
In fact, the thing eerily missing from the debate coming from “close schools or cut everything people hold dear” proponents is what the effect on children would be for any of the things they are throwing on the table. There is no body of research anywhere that I’ve been able to locate that says a large elementary school is better for students than smaller schools. There also isn’t any research saying schools without music programs, speech teams, hockey programs, or whatever other menacing cuts the administration is threatening, are better for students. There is plenty of research, however, that shows how meaningless a bloated administration is for education. And the district has years of its own research from the way it hemorrhaged elementary students every time a school closed. An empty threat? Hardly. Winona lost so many students that the city was able to populate several new charter and parochial schools with them.
To be standing back on the door of that decision again is the definition of insanity: To do the same thing again and expect different results. Frankly, I’m entirely unimpressed with the problem-solving capabilities of the current board and administration. If there is so much space, why aren’t they actively looking for collaborations in the community to co-locate programs? Why aren’t they renting the space to nursery schools and childcare programs, to youth services organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters or scouts? Why is it that the current leadership can’t consider any options except the one they want? Maybe we don’t need to close buildings, gut programs, and build a new school – maybe we need new leaders.