Concerns raised about possible Celestine Elem. closure

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald


DUBOIS — About a week after an architect recommended the eventual closure of Celestine Elementary, concerned members of the public flooded the Northeast Dubois School Corporation office at the school board’s monthly meeting on Tuesday night to voice concerns they have with shuttering Celestine’s doors.

The district is in the midst of deciding what facilities projects it will pursue with debt falling off this year, and the option to close Celestine came from VPS Architect George Link’s recommendations at a Jan. 7 community meeting.

It will be a while before the fate of the school is officially determined, however.

The school board will host a string of work sessions during the next month to discuss the corporation’s future. Those sessions are open to the public, and will take place in the Dubois Middle School multi-purpose room, each beginning at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 29; Monday, Feb. 4; and Tuesday, Feb. 12.

In addition to eventually closing Celestine Elementary, Link’s recommendations also included renovations to the Northeast Dubois High School and Dubois Middle School. Those suggestions would ultimately need to be approved by the board before they become a reality.

Some attendees at Tuesday’s meeting believed the decision to close Celestine Elementary or keep it open would be made at the school board’s Feb. 19 meeting, but Northeast Dubois Superintendent Bill Hochgesang said that is not the case. At that meeting, the board may approve what project or projects it will pursue, but the possibility of building reconfiguration will be a separate consideration down the road. Hochgesang estimated that decision will be made this spring.

Celestine resident Kelly Bieker remembers being disheartened when she heard Link’s recommendation. One of her two children attends Celestine Elementary, and she served on the Save the Jeeps committee that pushed for the district’s property tax referendum that passed in late 2016. Keeping the schools alive is close to her heart.

“It’s always been in the back of everyone’s mind ... and I did not think when we passed that referendum in 2016 that two years later we’d be having conversations to close our school,” she said following Tuesday’s meeting. “Myself and others were under the impression that this would not save our school forever, but make a difference for quite awhile. So, that we’re having these discussions so soon was a surprise.”

When the floor opened for comments Tuesday night, Bieker posed a list of questions to the board, inquiring about other options Northeast Dubois has that would keep the school open and how the closure would affect the Celestine community.

“I would like to close with my support of the Northeast Dubois School Corporation, however, I do not support the closing of Celestine Elementary without input from key stakeholders being heard and thoroughly evaluated, and solid rationale provided to support this decision,” she said. “I hope a decision will not be made solely based on what is recommended or presented here tonight.”

She continued: “This is a permanent decision that will impact our corporation, community and, most importantly, our children for generations to come, and I believe it deserves more time and involvement from our community.”

Other speakers expressed concerns about class sizes, ensuring students have access to adequate facilities, and issues that could come with moving elementary-age students under the same roof as middle schoolers.

“I think the board understands and feels for all these concerns and comments,” Board President Mary Pankey told the crowd. “It’s not that we disagree. It’s not much different than your checkbook at home. You have to live within your means, and we’re trying to make the school viable with what we have available.”

Many who spoke also acknowledged the board’s decision is a difficult one.

“It’s difficult for a small school corporation,” Hochgesang said following the meeting. “It really, truly is. And there are decisions that the board has to make now that are painful decisions to make. They really, truly are. It’s a shame that we have to make those, but it’s reality. It’s what we have to do.”

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