Sunday, December 28, 2014

Patrons rally against closing schools

By CRYSTAL HERBER, Herald Staff Writer | 1/16/2013

POMONA — It was cold outside but tensions heated up Monday evening as nearly 40 community members packed West Franklin’s school board meeting.

Their chief concern: consolidation.

POMONA — It was cold outside but tensions heated up Monday evening as nearly 40 community members packed West Franklin’s school board meeting.

Their chief concern: consolidation.

More than 15 school district patrons from the surrounding area spoke in opposition to the board’s recent discussions about long-term plans to close two of the district’s three school campuses (Williamsburg and Appanoose elementary schools), consolidating West Franklin at one location in Pomona. The change would require residents pass a bond issue — with a pricetag of $12 million to $25 million — to pay for new buildings at the Pomona campus.

“Do we want to close schools? No. This is gut-wrenching to come to this,” Thayne Bush, West Franklin school board president, told the crowd. “It’s not been an easy decision to get to this point. We don’t want to close schools, we don’t want to raise taxes, but we have to look at the future.”

The board is considering consolidating school campuses, Bush said, because finances dictate the district likely will not be able to responsibly fund continued maintenance and operation of individual school sites in Williamsburg, Appanoose and Pomona.

School officials also have cited the potential for major funding cuts to education in the coming year as a result of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax plan. While the district is not “broke” at this time, Bush said, closing buildings and reducing staff are the only ways to save money in the school district.

Patrons at Monday’s meeting contended that passing a bond issue to pay for consolidation and new buildings would further shift the financial burden to taxpayers in a time when many already are short on cash.

“How much do you expect the people of this district to tighten our belts?” Kevin Froggatte, Williamsburg, asked the board. “We are meager people with meager jobs just trying to get by on what we have. Please reconsider the plan to consolidate and build new schools at this time.”

Froggatte, who said he already has transferred his three children out of the district, lives near the Appanoose school and is among those running for the West Franklin school board in the April 2 election. Given the $2,800 Froggatte said he pays in property taxes, he said, he cannot handle much more.

“We are here tonight begging you, a board who is supposed to represent us, to not add more tax burden to our shoulders,” Froggatte said.

Doing so, he said, would mean the board is turning its backs on the people it represents and pushing people out of the district.

Board members, however, have said the bond election is needed to help address extensive repair needs throughout the district, regardless of whether the board moves forward with consolidation. Such necessary improvements include heating and air conditioning work, electrical repairs and window replacement, Dotson Bradbury, West Franklin superintendent, said.

Carol Scott Hamilton, who said her 11-year-old grandson recently transferred out of Appanoose school, noted for the board that the majority of the community members who gathered Monday for the meeting were older residents — people likely living on fixed incomes, such as disability or Social Security payments. Hamilton agreed with Froggatte’s sentiments about an increased tax burden, adding that new buildings would not be the best use of district funds.

“I am definitely against any new buildings. These buildings are good. All we need to do is paint and replace some plumbing,” Hamilton said. “You guys just need to back off. Give us a voice. And just turn the checkbook back to the patrons.”

In addition to concerns over higher taxes, Williamsburg city officials expressed their fears about how consolidation and the shuttering of Williamsburg’s school would impact the town. Jon Horne, Williamsburg’s mayor, told board members the state of the town has not improved since the district closed Williamsburg High School about five years ago when the West Franklin school district previously consolidated. Horne predicted the situation in Williamsburg only will get worse if the remaining school closes.

“Due to your ... continued talk of consolidation, I have to keep in mind the economic impact that it could have on the City of Williamsburg and its citizens,” Horne said. “You guys need to understand the longer this discussion goes on, the worse it hurts our school district.”

Gene Hirt, a Williamsburg city council member, said he already has noticed people pulling up stakes and leaving town.

“I don’t want to lose that town, and that’s where we’re headed,” he said.

Talk of consolidation has worsened morale among West Franklin patrons, one resident said, pitting members of each of the three communities against one another in an almost-certain fight for survival. Bitterness and tension are evident, Sandy Milliken, Williamsburg, said.

“As friends and neighbors, we used to stop and show real concern for each other’s families, but now we work our way and we sit in clusters in the gymnasium representing three different schools instead of one, united,” Milliken said. “Don’t continue to drive wedges between the people of the district over things that can be solved.”

New facilities and technology aren’t the key to a good education, one former school employee told the board. Funding for classes and teachers are needed to ensure West Franklin students receive a sound education, Jackie Robbins said.

“We have had excellent teachers,” Robbins, former school nurse, said. “All three of my daughters have had an excellent education in this district. They went on to do bigger and better things.”

The board and Bradbury stressed to patrons Monday that if a bond issue — planned for June — overwhelmingly is defeated by voters, another bond issue would be unlikely anytime soon.

It is imperative, Bradbury said, that patrons fully understand what is being asked of them regarding their tax dollars through the bond issue. Lengthy discussions, like the one Monday night, are beneficial to the process, he said, noting he thought the discussion was productive.

Bradbury said the lack of support for the bond issue from the patrons gathered at Monday’s meeting does not demonstrate an unwillingness to compromise. He said he appreciated patron involvement on the difficult issue.

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