Written by Don Ratzlaff Tuesday, 18 May 2010 19:32
The doors of the building in Lost Spring that houses Centre Elementary School will be locked for the final time as a classroom facility. It will mark the first time since the building was constructed in 1925 that the voices of children and teachers will not echo through its hallways when fall rolls around.
The closure also will complete the slow but sure death march for school buildings in the small towns of Marion County that began in 1963 with the inauguration of school consolidation.
This fall, as a result of declining enrollment and growing financial challenges, all Centre students will be consolidated on the campus located a mile north of Lincolnville.
While leaving the old building is sad, Superintendent Jerri Kemble said she is excited about the future.
“We’re just going to be doing business in a new way,” Kemble said. “The (elementary) kids are excited about it. They can’t wait.”
Though motivated by the recent statewide budget crisis, the decision to close the Lost Springs facility was not a sudden or impulsive decision on the part of the board, Kemble said.
“When I interviewed for the (superintendent) job in 2007, one of the questions in the interview was, ‘How would you feel about being all in one building?’ So this has been thought about for a while.
“Then, once I came on the job, I found out that even years before that it had been talked about,” she added. “So I think it’s been about 10 years that (the school board) has been talking about this.”
The board’s decision in January to move ahead with closure did not surprise many residents, but it did sadden most.
“The word has been out in the community—it’s been in conversations,” Kemble said. “So people have known it’s coming. But it’s still a bit of shock when you know something is coming in the future, then all of a sudden it’s here.”
As owner of Al’s Cafe, one of the few businesses to call Lost Springs home, owner Delores Alvarez said, “I really don’t hear much about (the closure) because I’m usually in the back.
“But it’s very sad,” she added. “The people just aren’t coming around anymore. There’s nothing for them here, there really isn’t. It makes it really hard for anybody to even try to move in around here.”
The generations of family members and acquaintances who passed through the old school building “go way back,” Alvarez said.
“All of my girls, all my children went there and graduated from Centre High School,” she said. “I could see it happening. I would like to keep our school, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Kemble said once the board made the decision to close the building, it presented a plan of action to the community. Information and school personnel were made available at home ball games to explain the plan and field questions.
“Most everyone said, ‘We knew it was coming; it’s just a shock when it gets here,’” Kemble said. “That was mainly it. We’ve had very little negativity. Most everyone is supportive—they’re happy to have a school. That’s been great. I think it would be hard to keep the momentum and staff moving forward if you had a lot of negativity because you’d have to overcome all that to move forward.
“I’m thankful to the community for its support because it’s allowing us to do our business and move along.”
With the double hit from reduced state funding (a $189,000 cut since March 2009) and declining enrollment (65 students in the past 10 years for a total enrollment of 243 this year), the Centre district was facing an additional reduction of at least $190,000 for the 2010-11 year.
Kemble said the board considered raising the local option budget to fill the void—an 11-mill jump from the present 17-mill levy. But members decided it would be too heavy a financial burden on patrons.
As for reducing operating expenses, “the board felt cuts should be made as far away from the classroom as possible,” Kemble said.
The board did eliminate an administrative position when principal Nadine Smith announced she would be leaving to become superintendent in the Rock Creek district.
Kemble will become K-12 principal in addition to her duties as superintendent.
Also, closing the Lost Springs building is projected to save between $75,000 and $100,000. The district also will cut its at-risk program for 4-year-olds, which Kemble said has been “a bone of contention.”
This year the at-risk program drew 10 children.
“We all believe in (the program), we all know how important it is, but in these tough times you have to make really tough decisions,” she said.
“The reason we’re looking at letting it go is that by the time we get our grant money, we have to put in an additional $30,000 into that half-day program. Plus, we have to bus them all home over 400 square miles.
“We called (the state) to ask if the parents could pick them up, and the answer was no. Under the grant you have to provide the same busing that you provide the rest of your students.
“To keep this program would be incredibly expensive.”
Kemble said a day-care provider in the community is working with the district to see if it can meet the need.
“We’re real happy about that,” she said.
As for the move to the unified campus in fall, Kemble said the 90 or so elementary students can be accommodated in the existing structure with a “minimal” investment for alterations.
“We’re going to be tight, but I think that’s OK—I like a building that has energy,” she said “It isn’t too tight. Some people may think it is, but if you go 90 miles from here you’ll find out it’s not. It’s very do-able.”
Students will be centralized by age in various sections of the building.
“Something people were concerned about was, ‘How are you going to have those little kids with the big kids?’” Kemble said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of making sure that happens.”
The one place in the building that needed attention in the facility was the kitchen
“Right now, the serving lines are pretty high up, and the little ones aren’t going to be able to make that,” Kemble said. “So we had to reconsider it and buy some steam tables to redo the look of that.”
The central office, which has been situated in the Lost Springs building, will be moved into the house located near the high school.
As for adding more principal duties to her workload, Kemble said, “I’m excited to work with K-12. I spent most of my career in middle school, and I kind of miss it. There’s a lot of action and a lot that’s going on, and I like that.”
No plan for the building
For the time being, the board has no plans for the Lost Springs building, which has roof and boiler issues to contend with if it were to be reopened in the future.
Word about a recycling plant opening near Herington has stirred the hope that more people might move to the area to fill the significant number of jobs projected.
Kemble said the district will continue to own the building for a while in case it might yet be needed in the future.
“We’ll wait and see what happens,” Kemble said.
In the meantime, “We’ll keep an eye on the building, we’ll winterize it and mothball it—and just see what happens.”