Declining enrollment pushes consolidation

LEROY — At the end of the school year, two elementary schools in the Pine River Area School District will be closed until further notice. Members of the board of education decided to close Tustin Elementary School and Luther Elementary School at the May 13 school board meeting after months of receiving community input. Pine River Area Schools Superintendent Jim Ganger said the decision was not an easy one, but necessary to balance the budget. “We’re closing two buildings because of reduced enrollment and the loss of state funding,” Ganger said. The district began to see declining student numbers about eight years ago, and board members then started to explore options to preserve funding, including closing buildings. In the last three years, PRAS has lost 118 students and has a projected student loss of 45 for the 2013-14 school year. The compounded student drop equates to a loss of $1.3 million during a four-year period, Ganger said. Along with a lack of new families living in the area, the difference between the number of incoming kindergarten students and the number of graduating classes is the main reason for the decline. Closing the two schools means the reduction of secretaries, administrators, teachers and other staff, which is the largest expense for the district because of salaries and benefits. The buildings themselves cost significantly less to run. Ganger said about 20 staff members have been reduced by seniority, as the current teaching contract does not expire until Aug. 31 and does not have to follow the state’s future teacher evaluation system for laying off faculty. “That’s the hardest part, that people are out of work now, but personnel is the largest cost,” he added. The elementary school remaining is LeRoy Elementary, which will be renamed Pine River Elementary. Pine River Elementary will be a K-3 school, Pine River Middle School will house grades four through seven and Pine River High School will serve students from eighth to twelfth grade. Keeping LeRoy Elementary open was the best choice, as the school is centrally located in the district, has the largest number of classrooms to accommodate students and allows the greatest flexibility. The board of education has yet to consider a busing schedule for students in the Luther and Tustin communities, but Ganger said a few options are being explored.  
Community response
As board members discussed closing the two elementary buildings, they gave district residents the opportunity to express their thoughts and concerns. Ganger said many parents and village residents were divided on the issue. “It’s been very emotional for the communities and I respect that,” he added. “Schools have been a focal point for each.” Parental concern included longer bus rides or commute times, the potential loss of volunteers at each building, the potential loss of district, school and individual village pride, a lack of convenience and the potential loss of district support from the community. There have been positive outlooks, however. Granger said consolidation allows the district the ability to balance the budget, allows the combination of resources and better education opportunities, allows teachers a common planning time and place, gives the district a unified elementary school and can help improve the efficiency of PRAS. District parent Shelly Sumpter currently has children in third grade, fourth grade and ninth grade and is one of many parents who will be dealing with the changes next school year. “I understand they’re trying to do the best they can do,” Sumpter said. Although she had original concerns, the thorough planning by the board of education and school administration has given her confidence. She is happy her children will have separate wings in the school, have many of the same teachers, same library books and same playground equipment with which they are familiar. “I think they have thoroughly thought through what is doing to happen, and I think the people that are against it don’t have enough information,” Sumpter added.   Looking forward Luther Elementary’s Building Leader Dawn Vanderhoof said the students and staff are coping well with the upcoming change, though there is a melancholy undertone during the school’s final days. “It’s a very sad time. It’s a special little school, but we understand the situation our district is in,” said Vanderhoof, who has been on staff for 24 years. She said it is fortunate the closure did not happen sooner, as student numbers have been on the decline for years. Once the change takes place, four teachers will be transferring to Pine River Elementary and three teachers will move to the middle school. Vanderhoof said the school body is cherishing the final days at the building and will miss many things. “There is a feeling of warmth and caring here, it’s hard to describe,” she added. “Our staff is really close-knit and I’ll miss sitting and talking after school.” Tustin Elementary Principal Alan Thomas said the final days of the year have been busy for staff. “For most teachers, they’re wrapping their heads around ending this year and starting the next year,” Thomas said, adding morale has been kept at a high level. From Tustin Elementary, seven teachers will move to Pine River Elementary and four will move to the middle school. For both Vanderhoof and Thomas, seeing the familiar faces of their children at the schools each day will be one of their fondest memories. Though the two schools will no longer be used for elementary students, Ganger said the district has no desire to let them sit vacant. “Our goal is to turn these buildings into community centers,” he said. Both schools can be preserved and utilized for pre-school and day care programs, senior citizen programs, YMCA events, health events and various other gatherings. The board is open for more suggestions, Ganger added. He believes the district will be better and stronger after consolidation is complete, and parents should feel confident in the district’s decision. “We’re going to make this work,” Ganger said. “The teachers and administrators are committed to making this work.”