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3/13/2018 12:46:00 PM
Consolidation may be best, only option for Northeast Sullivan school district
Downward trend: Northeast School Corp. Superintendent Dr. Mark Baker talks during Monday’s meeting about the potential solutions for the school corp. at Northeast Middle School in Shelburn. Staff photo by Austen Leake
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Downward trend: Northeast School Corp. Superintendent Dr. Mark Baker talks during Monday’s meeting about the potential solutions for the school corp. at Northeast Middle School in Shelburn. Staff photo by Austen Leake

Sue Loughlin, Tribune-Star

Some people attending Monday’s information session on the future of Northeast Sullivan School Corp. suggested the best, and perhaps only, option may be consolidation with Southwest Sullivan School Corp.

But Northeast Sullivan School Board president Norman Santus said he has talked to representatives of Southwest Sullivan and “they are not interested” at this time unless the state mandates it.

The topic was one of the emerging themes during the public information session, in which Superintendent Mark Baker talked about the future of Northeast and some different options, given the district’s declining enrollment and funding. Over the past 10 years, Northeast Sullivan has lost 669 students, and since 2011, it has lost $4.1 million in state tuition support revenue.

The district currently has about 818 students in its building.

As it looks to the future, the district is considering a grade reconfiguration and realignment of buildings to help cut costs. Whereas the district now has four schools — two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school — it is looking at the possibility of consolidating to two buildings and closing the two elementary schools located in Hymera and Farmersburg.

Last year, a focus group studied the issues confronting the district and came up with three possible options: Currently, North Central High School, located in Farmersburg houses grades 9-12 and has 282 students, while Northeast Middle School in Shelburn has grades 6-8, with 191 students. Northeast North Elementary, located in Farmersburg, has grades K-5 (231 students), and Northeast East Elementary in Hymera has grades K-5 (114 students).

The three options each call for new construction as well as some renovation. 

• Option 1 calls for grades K-6 to be located at the Shelburn school site, with grades 7-12 located at the North Central High School site. The cost is estimated at $7.3 million. 

• With Option 2, grades K-4 would locate at Shelburn, with grades 5-12 at the North Central High School site. The cost would be $6.6 million.

• Under Option 3, all grades would be housed at the North Central site, and the pricetag would be $15.3 million. A project of that scope would require a referendum. “We don’t think it’s a realistic option,” Baker said previously.

After Baker’s presentation, Santus emphasized no decision has been made, and the final decision may not be any of the three options — or it could be a combination of those suggested in the report or “something entirely different.” The board hopes to make a decision in May.

Jerry Baker, a Farmersburg resident, was among those who suggested the best long-term option may be consolidation with Southwest Sullivan School Corp. But first, Northeast Sullivan must build community support and also strengthen its own financial position. Baker believes Northeast Sullivan would be in a stronger negotiating position if its finances were in better shape. After the information session, he said he doesn’t advocate consolidation, but in talking to others, many believe that in the next 10 years, it will be a necessary step for all Sullivan County schools. He’s concerned if Hymera and Farmersburg schools are closed, those communities will lose their identities; he noted that petitions are circulating opposed to the current options being proposed.

Among the speakers was Jamie Kiefner, who believes “we need to do something to bring more children into our community. We’ve alienated kids and parents in the community, and I want them to come back. We need more students,” she said after the meeting. Patty Horn, who teaches at Northeast Middle School in Shelburn, spoke against having junior high students return to the North Central High School setting. The younger students “are always in the shadows,” she said.

Nicole Baker also asked the board not to return junior high students to the high school campus. The younger students “are not mature enough” to be with the high school students, she said. If that change occurs, she said she would take her children out of the school district.

Others commenting were Larry and Lonnie Bedwell, who both said that a consolidation with Southwest School Corp. needs to be considered. Larry Bedwell told the board they need to look at what is best for the entire county.

Lonnie Bedwell said, “I think there is only one option for our county — and that is to consolidate” the two districts.

Another speaker said she would like to see more programs, especially high school vocational programs, that were talked about when Northeast School Corp. decided to close Union High School and Dugger Elementary.

Even if the board takes action in May, the earliest the changes could be implemented — if there are brick and mortar changes — would be the 2019-2020 school year, Superintendent Mark Baker said. “I think everyone understands the numbers ... that we need to do something,” he said last week. “But nobody wants to lose their school; we understand that. Those are the kinds of things we do as a last resort.”

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