REELSVILLE--It was time to face the public for the South Putnam Community School Board on Monday night. As rumors of the Reelsville Elementary School closing have escalated, the Reelsville PTO brought the board into a two-hour long special work session to clear up any misconceptions.
Superintendent Bruce Bernhardt began the meeting by giving a brief overview of the situation in which the corporation finds itself in danger of going broke.
"We're spending far greater than what we're bringing in each year," said Bernhardt. "We're spending somewhere near a half-million dollars more than we're taking in."
The board listened to concerns from parents and shot down the idea that no other options were looked at besides the school's closing.
"The board and parents have brought up many things to look at," explained Bernhardt. "When you add those up they fall far short in terms of the kinds of savings we need."
The board looked at several options such as having teachers and administrators take salary cuts, reducing supplies and materials, cutting utility usage, as well as even cutting out some special courses like art, music, physical education and computer lessons.
"There's many things like that, that we could do but they don't add up to the amount of savings that closing the building could do," Bernhardt said. "We don't want to affect the students' education by cutting classes."
Bernhardt went on to explain that it is the board's goal to provide a wide variety of educational experiences for the children. Therefore, cutting programs is not an option.
"This is in no way a reflection of the education being taught here," said Bernhardt.
With the hopes of the economy turning around shattered and the state cutting funding, the board is forced to look at major changes that must happen.
"We're looking at long-term student numbers," said Bernhardt. "We anticipated that we were going to level off but we didn't."
Several parents explained their distrust of the school board. They alleged the board has been watching the decline in funding for many years yet failed to do anything or inform the public until recently.
"We've been consistently doing cuts," said board member Nancy Wells. "We're at the point now where we have to do something drastic."
Members of the board also noted that some of those cuts included changing insurance and retirement plans. However, it would take a while until those savings were seen.
"We felt like we could make some minor changes to try to reduce attrition," Bernhardt explained. "The loss of students and the economy has hit us doubly hard."
Randy Kuhlman, the PTO appointed spokesperson, suggested cutting coaching assistants' pay completely along with several other minor cuts.
"If we're going to shut down Reelsville, I expect there to be major cuts elsewhere," said Kuhlman.
Kuhlman, along with other members of the public, also expressed outrage over such short notice of a problem.
"I learned about this from my six-year-old who came up to me and said, 'Grandma what's going to happen to me?'" said Joyce Cline. "She came home after her teacher told her that the school was closing."
The public also began to criticize the board for the perceived lack of a plan or proposal set in place before coming to the public.
"This is not a Reelsville problem," said Bernhardt. "It's come up because of school corporation-wide student loss."
Bernhardt refuted the rumor of a massive loss of jobs.
"The rumor that all teachers would get laid off is absolutely not true," he said.
However, no major changes can be made until contracts are up, which ends with the first pay period in August. It is likely that many of the teachers at Reelsville would be transferred.
"My best estimate is that we can function for 24 months before we spend all the money we have available," said Bernhardt. "If we want to prevent going broke, the end of the school year will be the end of Reelsville."
If the decision is set into motion, the board will sit down and determine the number of staff that can be relocated into other buildings as well as how many can be reduced or go into retirement.
"We will continue to work out if and when we decide," said Bernhardt. "Many of these teachers that are here may end up in (Central Elementary)."
The board has begun looking at the junior high wing of South Putnam. A major concern for parents is having their 12-year-old girls mixed in with 18-year-old boys.
Board members went on to explain that many changes would be made to ensure this did not happen, one of them being segregated rooms. Younger children would be placed in an area where high school students do not go. Lunches would also be segregated.
"It's a matter of scheduling," said Bernhardt. "We have not sat down and worked out all the details because the board needs to make a decision."
Bernhardt assured parents that their children would only be mixed in with the seventh and eighth-grade classes and teachers would continue to provide the best education they can for their children.
"Our teachers are good people," Bernhardt explained. "They will provide the best they can for these children."
Parents also expressed the opinion that the board only cares about the dollar signs, not the children themselves.
"You're asking us to give up our school," said parent Jicasta King. "All you see is that half-million. You need to look at other options."
Several parents explained that they moved to the southwestern Putnam County to go to a small, country, family-oriented school. Many feeling that moving their children to Central Elementary would no longer provide that.
"People live in this community because the school is the environment they want their children in," said parent Patrick Thibodeau. "I would just hope that the school board would look at other courses of action. I think they owe it to the community."
Kuhlman presented the board with a petition signed by 94 parents, 88 of whom have current students. Thirty-one of those said they would pull their students out of the corporation if this plan went into effect.
Kuhlman later said in total there are around 332 parent signatures throughout several petitions that are currently circulating.
"There's a lot of people that could live in other places," said Thibodeau. "The solution is going to end up closing the school and we're going to lose the enrollment and be worse off."
Parents made it clear that the school corporation would lose more children, therefore even more money, if the school were to close.
"I have friends that are realtors, they've already lost three potential buyers due to the rumors of Reelsville closing," said Kuhlman. "If we're going to shut this down we have to find savings everywhere else too."
One of several concerns parents voiced was the issue of transportation.
"We'd try to arrange the routes to make them as short as possible," said Bernhardt. "All of these issues would be addressed after a final decision has been made."
As it stands now many of the students have nearly an hour-long or longer commute to and from school. Shuttling students to Central Elementary would make that commute even longer.
Aside from the longer commute, the school would be at maximum capacity, making parents wonder if the level of students were to see a massive increase what would happen then.
"This is a short-term fix that could have long-term problems," said parent Ronnie Proctor.
In an effort to come up with as many options as possible to save the school, parents suggested fundraising as well as even starting up a preschool within Reelsville Elementary with monthly tuition.
"I understand we're all angry but let's look at options," said Kuhlman.
The reality of the issue is, the school corporation can no longer afford to operate under current conditions. Major cuts need to happen.
"(Central Elementary) is by all means still a small school," said Wells. "We don't like to make these changes. We're not after Reelsville."
Board members and Bernhardt closed out the meeting by saying it would continue to look at other options and reiterating that no decision has been made yet.