Elmbrook School Board Votes to Close Hillside
Despite strong pleas from residents and a city alderman representing the Hillside community to keep the school open, School Board members said it was time to be a five-elementary school district.
After emotional debate from residents who begged the Elmbrook School Board to not close any elementary school, board members voted 6-1 to shut down Hillside Elementary after this school year to close budget gaps amid declining enrollment.
Only board member Bob Ziegler urged against closure, winning applause and standing ovations from the packed Brookfield Central High cafeteria when he also objected to a closure vote before an acceptable redistricting plan was created.
- Take another look at the Elmbrook School Board meeting by checking out the replay of our real-time blog of the debate and vote.
But Board President Tom Gehl echoed other board members when he said the district could not keep operating six elementary schools with about 30 percent unused space while facing budget deficits and no sign of substantial enrollment increases on the horizon.
Parents said the board had not done enough to find ways to meet the budget gap. Angela Wellsmith said the board's $8.7 million projected five-year deficit amounted to an average $1.7 million annual gap. That is just 2 percent of the district's $80 million budget, she noted — "not a crisis" justifying the last resort of school closure.
She noted that administrators had already come up with about $5 million worth of savings ideas to close that $8.7 million gap.
Board member Glen Allgaier agreed, "This is not a crisis situation. We could muddle through another couple years without closing a school. But I think it would be fiscally irresponsible. ... Good planning avoids a crisis."
He and board member Dick Brunner argued but failed to persuade other board members that two schools should be closed and Elmbrook should have four elementary schools feed into its two middle and two high schools.
Redistricting options will be discussed
Some parents criticized Superintendent Matt Gibson for raising the possibility in documents prepared for Tuesday's meeting that the redistricting plan could be altered so all Hillside Elementary students are not moved en masse to Brookfield Elementary School.
Alternate redistricting plans were created to address concerns that moving all Hillside students together would make Brookfield Elementary too crowded, especially compared to the other elementary schools.
However, Gibson said he continued to support keeping Hillside students together in a move.
He said he planned to hold meetings seeking feedback on three redistricting plans at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Nov. 2. The meeting location was yet to be determined and might be announced Wednesday.
Gibson called the school closure "the saddest recommendation that I've made in my 17 years" and that "the only good news I see in this is an investment" in maintaining a top-notch school district that excels in academics, arts and athletics.
"I see this as one step in a difficult journey of sustaining an Elmbrook education," Gibson said.
Anger directed at outgoing superintendent
But he bore the brunt of anger by residents who accused him of pushing the closure issue and unfairly targeting Hillside instead of Tonawanda, to save the only Elmbrook elementary school located in Elm Grove.
"Please do not allow Dr. Gibson's self-fulfilling prophecy to come true," said Chuck Bloom, whose children attended Hillside and grandchildren now do.
Other board members defended Gibson, who will retire at the end of the school year. They said he had no agenda and worked hard to find reasonable solutions.
Former School Board president Bruce Nattinger and many others said they believed the decision was a foregone conclusion, with Hillside the favorite target from the outset.
Parents literally begged the board to not close a school.
"We will do anything to keep our school open," said Ginny Bruemmer, whose son sat in the front row holding a sign saying "Closing Hillside Hurts Everyone."
"Hillside isn't just a school," she said. "It's our home and our family."
Mary Wacker, a district parent who also coaches Brookfield East High's award-winning forensics program, said, "Matt, I beg you, don't let your legacy be another take-away from this communty. Don't close Hillside."
Parent Karen Selkey, an advertising executive, said she would "love" to help market Hillside and Elmbrook as a whole to boost enrollment, saying she already had campaign ideas.
"God willing, this will all turn around," she said.
Stephen Taipala's daughter Ainsley stood on a chair to reach the microphone to address the board, surrounded by local television station cameras.
"If you close Hillside I will be really sad," she said. "I don't want to go to a different school. I want to stay at Hillside. Hillside is just my size.... I really don't want Hillside to close because I love it."
Gibson acknowledged the division the issue has caused in the community. Some have said its greater burden on school transfers for west-side families pitted the city's east and west sides against each other.
"This unfortunately has caused some splits in relationships," Gibson said, adding he hoped wounds would heal.
Hillside parent Elizabeth Bing said, "Kids will adapt but ... everything we had at Hillside will be hard to replace."
Much debate centered around whether the School Board had done enough to find a way to keep all six schools open. Board members Allgaier, Meg Wartman and Jean Lambert said extensive debate and analysis had been done for years over budget solutions, including charter schools and multi-age classrooms.
Those ideas did not produce needed savings, Allgaier said.
Ziegler disagreed strongly, saying more time was spent on developing a plan to close a school than to keep them open.