Celestine residents not surprised about school closure

Photos by Daniel Vasta/The Herald
Retiring Dubois and Celestine Elementary Schools Principal Brenda Ferguson walks out of Celestine Elementary School on Thursday. "It's hard for any building to close," said Ferguson of the Northeast Dubois School Corporation's decision to close the Celestine Elementary School building following the 2019-20 school year. "The children are resilient," she added, hoping that the students' transition will be made a success with the positivity and support of the community.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

CELESTINE — When Logan and Alicia Clark moved to Celestine in 2011, they had dreams of their children some day attending Celestine Elementary — the same elementary school Logan attended.

Those dreams vanished Tuesday evening when the Northeast Dubois School Board voted unanimously to close the school at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

“I wouldn’t say we were shocked,” Alicia said of hearing the news. “They’ve been talking about this for quite some time.”

Still, the Clarks were upset.

“We’re really sad to hear that [Celestine] isn’t going to be an option anymore,” Alicia said.

The decision to close the school serves as the end of a chapter in the school corporation’s history that began in 2016 when the board asked taxpayers to approve a property tax referendum to boost school funding for seven years. Those years gave the board time to plan for the school’s future and to get finances under control after years of declining state funding due to falling enrollment.

For many in Celestine, passing the referendum meant a chance for their community and the school they love, and they voted based on that belief.

“All the Celestine people were like, ‘Vote for the referendum, it’ll help save Celestine,’” Nicole Merkel recalled. “I think it’s a big blow for the town of Celestine as a whole.”

Merkel grew up in Celestine. Her father, Steve Schnell, attended Celestine, as did Merkel and her siblings. Although Merkel now lives in Huntingburg, most of her family still lives in their hometown, and Merkel always viewed moving back one day as an option. Without the school, though, she’s not sure the town will be the Celestine she remembers.

“Celestine is just one of those tight-knit communities, and the school was an anchor for that,” Merkel said.

While the people of Celestine aren’t happy about their school closing, many understand that the corporation needs to cut costs, and closing Celestine is part of that.

The corporation for years has suffered from falling enrollment and falling funding due to state tuition dollars being tied to enrollment. Fewer students means less money, and Northeast Dubois is struggling. Currently, the corporation has enough space in its school buildings for 1,000 students, but only has 800 enrolled, and enrollment is projected to continue falling for the foreseeable future.

“Knowing that Celestine has to close to keep everything going,” Alicia Betz said. “It makes it a little bit easier.”

Betz attended Celestine Elementary and graduated from Northeast Dubois in 2014.

For Celestine resident Audrey Boutwell, keeping the school corporation going is the first priority. If closing Celestine will save the corporation enough money to stay in operation, Boutwell can get behind it.

“If they can’t figure out the money problem, the whole school system is going to be gone,” Boutwell said. “If it’s necessary in saving Northeast Dubois, I say try anything.”

Boutwell does wish the board had looked more closely at other options for school funding before deciding to close Celestine, however. Personally, she said, she’s in favor of raising the property tax rate in the school district to get the school additional funds.

School officials have repeatedly said, however, that they don’t want to raise taxes.

Alicia Clark wondered if the board fully considered the success of Celestine Elementary. The school is consistently recognized by the state as a Blue Ribbon and Four Star school. From her perspective, she said, it doesn’t seem like that was considered enough, though she added she understands the desire to have all three school buildings in Dubois.

Merkel said she wishes the board would have looked at the Celestine community as a whole rather than just at the school. It may not seem like it, she said, but younger families are moving to the area. In a few years, she said, Celestine could have seen higher enrollment.

Despite wishing the board would have done some things differently, Merkel, Boutwell and Alicia Clark all said they didn’t think the board would have made a different decision in the end.

“I understand they’re doing what they think is best for Northeast Dubois as a whole,” Merkel said. “I just think they could have fought harder to keep it open. I don’t know if they did everything they could to keep it open.”

Although Celestine Elementary will close, the alumni will always have their memories of their time there. For Betz, those memories will include playing kickball nearly every recess. Merkel will remember the close friendships Celestine students form with their classmates and being known as “the Celestine kids” when they joined students from Dubois Elementary at the middle school in fifth grade.

And while the decision to close Celestine has some parents wondering whether or not their children will attend Northeast Dubois, Betz said she still wants her kids to be Jeeps someday. For that, the corporation needs to survive.

“I know there’s a lot of great teachers that work there,” she said. “They really do their best for the students who go through there every single day. I would like to see it continue.”




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