Hillside, Tonawanda on Final School Closure List
Elmbrook School Board members said they were not in favor of closing Swanson or Burleigh elementary schools.
Closing Hillside, Tonawanda or both elementary schools are the three options still on the table after the Elmbrook School Board Tuesday ruled out closing the larger elementary schools of Swanson and Burleigh.
One board member — Bob Ziegler — said he wasn't convinced Elmbrook should close any of its six elementary schools.
He urged his colleagues to consider ideas from former School Board president Bruce Nattinger, such as restructuring the schools so some house grades K to 2 and others grades 3 to 5. Elmbrook also should explore ways to increase revenues, including adding 4-year-old kindergarten, attracting new families and holding a voter referendum seeking to collect more property taxes to fund district operational costs.
"Right now I'm not comfortable in the least in closing any of these schools," Ziegler said.
But the other six board members agreed Elmbrook is funding more elementary school space than it needs, leaving too many classrooms empty at a time when the district faces a five-year budget deficit of $11.4 million, or about $2 million a year.
"It's an opportunity to free up money that will allow us to keep class sizes down, to keep more programs and to hire more teachers," board member Glen Allgaier said.
The board will continue its discussion and hopes to select a final recommendation at its Sept. 13 regular board meeting. That recommendation then would be presented at various community informational meetings to get feedback and prepare for a final decision this fall for implementation in 2012-13.
Board member Kathryn Wilson joined Ziegler in opposing closing Tonawanda because it would eliminate the only public elementary school in the Village of Elm Grove.
"The thing that makes Elm Grove very attractive is it's got that small town vibe," Wilson said. Without a public grade school, "it loses that cache," she said, which could cause more families to choose against moving there or switch to private and parochial school systems. That would hurt Elmbrook, she said.
One parent countered that families move into Elm Grove for the Elmbrook School District as a whole, and maybe even more so for Brookfield East High School than Tonawanda.
"If we don't close a school, we cut programs," said Claudia Griffin. "The music, the top science, the AP courses in the high schools — things like that make Elmbrook." She noted Elmbrook's most recent record-high ACT scores at both high schools.
Closing one or two smaller elementary schools to save money for programs "is what's going to maintain that quality," said Griffin, who has two children at Burleigh and one at Pilgrim Park Middle School. "This is what's going to keep people coming here."
"Closing two schools would be very psychologically damaging," to the district and its marketability, resident Danny Thomas said.
He said the Pewaukee School District's web site is targeting new families by touting it has stable resident enrollment, 4-year-old kindergarten and increasing open enrollment.
"I'd like to see more solutions that address enrollment," he said.
Board member Meg Wartman said Elmbrook should consider whether to add 4K but not until it decides whether to address excess school building capacity.
Under the various school closure options, there would be enough room to add 4K at each elementary school, although Burleigh would need to create some more space, said Keith Brightman, assistant superintendent for finance, operations and human resources.
A district report this summer said Elmbrook could close two schools, save about $2.6 million per year and still have enough building space to educate its projected 10-year resident enrollment plus some open enrollment students.
But some board members and residents said Tuesday that while it might sound good on paper, putting it into real practice was another matter. They said closing two schools causes a host of problems, including inadequate room for future enrollment growth, higher class sizes and crowded parking lots and school hallways.
Board members had even more concerns about closing Swanson or Burleigh. They said it would cause much more disruption by forcing a change to the K-12 feeder system in which elementary school students move with their peers to the same middle and high schools.
At a board work session Tuesday, administrators presented redistricting scenarios that showed where students would move should a school close and the impact on building capacity, bus ride times and more.
All board members but Ziegler said they opposed closing Swanson or Burleigh. Ziegler said while he also may not favor closing them, he said the district hadn't researched it enough, compared to the time spent studying Hillside and Tonawanda.
The final two elementary schools — Dixon and Brookfield Elementary — have not been considered because they are the newest buildings and located in the center of the district.
Allgaier said if Elmbrook closes Hillside and Tonawanda, the remaining four schools would be about 91 percent utilized, which he said might be too tight.
"We'd be right on the hair of filling them up," he said.
Some parents asked what board members considered optimal or acceptable building utilization. Brightman said the district has used 85 percent in the past.
Board President Tom Gehl said while operating four elementary schools rather than five would save more money, he was concerned "what those parking lots look like and what those classrooms look like."