Celestine Elementary building returned to diocese

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Celestine Elementary School in Celestine on Tuesday.


CELESTINE — It's official. Celestine Elementary School no longer belongs to the Northeast Dubois County School Corporation.

At their board meeting Tuesday night, members of the Northeast Dubois School Board approved a deed that returns the building — located at 6748 Main Cross St., Celestine — to the Catholic Diocese of Evansville. St. Isidore Parish, which includes St. Celestine Church and St. Raphael Church in Dubois, will oversee the property. St. Celestine Finance Chair Doug Merkel is overseeing the future of the structure.

"We're looking at any option we can come up with to see if it might be feasible," Merkel said.

So far, ideas have included using the structure for church events, converting it to a day care or senior living facility, or developing it into residential housing or a gym. Many of those options would require a developer or other manager to take charge, and COVID-19 has slowed meetings with such entities.

Another challenge, Merkel said, is the costly improvements the building needs. Any new use would have to bring the building up to ADA standards, fix leaks, upgrade the fire suppression and upgrade the electrical systems, which dates to the 1940s. Rough estimates place the cost of the work between $400,000 and $500,000.

"The building needs so much work done to it," Merkel said.

While the future of the Celestine Elementary building may be up in the air, its roots in the history of Celestine are firm. The school opened in 1922 as a Catholic school and was rebuilt in 1941 after a fire. When the county went through a school consolidation in the 1960s, the Catholic church transferred the school to the Northeast Dubois County School Corporation with the stipulation that if the building ever ceased to be used as a public school, ownership would return to the diocese.

The shift in use came at the end of the 2019-20 school year. In June of 2019, the school board voted to close Celestine Elementary as a cost-saving measure that is expected to save the corporation between $200,000 and $250,000 a year.

The board’s decision to close the school served as the end of a chapter in the school corporation’s history that began in 2016 when the board asked property tax payers to approve a property tax referendum to boost school funding for seven years to alleviate the loss of funding due to falling enrollment in the school corporation.

In 2016, school administrators hoped enrollment would flatten or increase, which would have helped the corporation's funding woes, but instead, enrollment continued to decrease. That led the board and school administrators to seek major cost-saving changes to avoid a second referendum. Those changes included closing Celestine Elementary and restructuring the grade configuration at the corporation's three remaining schools, now called Northeast Dubois Elementary, Northeast Dubois Intermediate School and Northeast Dubois Junior-Senior High School. The changes took effect at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.

With the new school year only just beginning, it's still too early to tell how much of a difference closing Celestine Elementary will make to the corporation's finances, but Superintendent Bill Hochgesang said it has been helpful to know the corporation won't have those costs, especially since the corporation has incurred additional costs due to COVID-19 safety precautions.

With Celestine Elementary no longer in use, the school corporation and the Evansville diocese underwent the process to transfer ownership of the property back to the diocese. It's a pretty simple process, Northeast Dubois Attorney Art Nordhoff said. It began when Nordhoff drew up a deed for the property and sent it to the attorney representing the diocese. After some back and forth, the parties agreed on the deed, Nordhoff said.

Tuesday night, the board members signed the deed, and the transfer became official.

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