Burns citizens group intends to combat school closure

A determined group of Burns residents are not ready to give up their elementary school just yet-and they feel common-sense economics supports their case.

About 25 members of the community, located about 15 miles southeast of Peabody, gathered Dec. 19 to discuss strategy for combatting a decision made by the Peabody-Burns USD 398 Board of Education to raze the building and consolidate the 20 students attending there into the elementary school in Peabody.

The building in Burns was condemned by the state fire marshall in September. At its Nov. 7 meeting, the Peabody-Burns board voted 2-5 against constructing a new facility in Burns. Two of the votes against the proposal were abstentions, but were counted as “no” votes under state law.

Organized as S.O.S.-standing for “Save Our School”-the group meeting in Burns Wednesday night said the board’s decision violated a “gentleman’s agreement” made when the two communities consolidated into one school system 35 years ago.

The agreement, recorded in writing, states that the district would always have a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade facility in Burns.

“Their argument is that the state shut the building down,” said Mayor Brent Miles, who moderated the meeting. “We would say, ‘You haven’t maintained the building for 35 years.'”

Several group members said they felt the Peabody board members were looking out only for the good of Peabody and not the district as a whole.

Participants said losing its school would devastate a small community like Burns. But they also were adamant that this issue should be decided on the basis of logic and economics, not emotion.

“The people in Peabody don’t understand the numbers,” Miles said. “They want to know why we want to build a building for only 20 kids.”

The group agreed that Peabody residents need to be made aware of several economic facts:

— Since consolidation, more than $35 million has been spent in Peabody for capital improvements for USD 398 facilities, but no funds have been invested at Burns.

— Architectural bids had estimated the cost of a new building at only $100,000 with an additional $80,000 needed annually to run it.

— USD 398 will lose about $126,000 in state aid each year if the 20 students from Burns are withdrawn from the district, as several people at the meeting intimated would happen within three years if Burns does not have an elementary school of its own.

“I don’t think they understand what losing 20 kids would do to their district,” one person said.

Members of the group mentioned alternative placements for their children, including transferring to neighboring school districts, or even building a privately run school in the community.

“Am I really expected to put my first-grader on a bus for an hour every day?” one woman asked. “I don’t think I could do that.”

— USD 398 has around $400,000 in its capital-outlay budget and is considering spending up to $200,000 of it to install a new environmental monitoring system in a high school building that is only four and one-half years old. One person with connections to the schools said the existing system is simply mismanaged and does not need to be replaced.

— the Burns City Council decided at its Dec. 10 meeting not to allow the district to burn and bury the old building, as was originally proposed. If the building is to be razed, the debris will have to be hauled away, significantly increasing the cost of the project.

Others in attendance pointed out that Burns, with 268 residents, was identified by Census 2000 as the fast-growing city in Marion County, and was already feeling the effects of growth in neighboring Butler County, identified as the fastest-growing county in the state.

“The district needs to see the potential for growth here that will help the whole district down the road,” said one person.

To raise awareness of these and other economic issues, the group decided to run several informative newspaper ads, then circulate petitions in Burns and Peabody asking the board to reconsider its decision.

The group hopes to present the petition at the school board’s February meeting.

In the meantime, members of the group encouraged each other to attend each meeting of the board.

“It does make a difference,” said one man who had served on the board.

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