District to shutter Celestine Elementary

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald


DUBOIS — In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, the Northeast Dubois School Board decided to close Celestine Elementary at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

The vote came after Superintendent Bill Hochgesang brought up administrators’ need to know the board’s plan for after the current renovation of the high school is complete and the seventh and eighth grades move to Northeast Dubois High School, freeing up space in Dubois Middle School.

Hochgesang told the board he brought up the question to give administrators more time to plan for the changing grade configuration.

While all the board members — Bernie Knies, Kelly Knies, Mary Pankey, Brennan Schepers and John Seibert — said they didn’t want to see Celestine close, they agreed it didn’t make sense to keep the school open when enrollment is projected to continue falling, leading to more of a decline in funding for the corporation.

“When we have buildings that can hold 1,000 students, but we only have 800, it’s silly to keep all of them open,” Kelly Knies said.

The fate of the Celestine school building is unknown, as the building belongs to the Catholic Diocese of Evansville and will return to the church when the school moves out.

The board’s 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 property tax payers 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.

When the corporation campaigned for the referendum in 2016, administrators hoped that the years of dropping enrollment in the corporation would slow or even out. Instead, the corporation lost enrollment faster than projected, leading to a continued loss of funds in the education fund that the referendum money helps offset for now.

However, the referendum will end in 2023, and the board is committed to not seeking a second one. To that end, the corporation began working with George Link from VPS Architecture of Evansville in November to look at how to use roughly $3 million the corporation will have freed up in the debt service fund.

School corporations use the debt service fund to cover larger construction projects. To do so, schools generally wait until previous debt is paid off, then take on new debt to keep a steady property tax rate.

In May, the board voted to move forward with a renovation at the high school that will allow the seventh and eighth grades to move to that building for the 2020-21 school year. Tentatively, the plan is to move third and fourth grade to the middle school to free up space in Dubois Elementary to hold preschool through second grades.

“It’s obvious to me that we can’t keep two grades at the middle school,” Pankey said of moving additional grades into the middle school when seventh and eighth grade move out.

The board also discussed the possibility of closing both Celestine and Dubois elementaries at the end of the 2019-20 school year since there is enough space in the middle and high school buildings to hold all the corporation’s students.

Kelly Knies favored that plan to minimize the number of times students and teachers would have to move buildings. Pankey pointed out, however, that the middle school is not currently set up to house preschool through second grade, and the corporation doesn’t have the money to renovate both the high school and middle school within a year.

“It’s not just a matter of if we can go to two buildings,” Pankey said. “It’s money and what the grade configuration is that needs to be looked at.”

Schepers also suggested that closing two schools at once would be too hasty. Going to three schools first, then down to two, if necessary, gives the board and administrators at least another year of enrollment numbers to look at so they can make a better decision for the corporation’s future, Schepers said.

“Taking it year by year and seeing where we’re at on [enrollment] is going to be key,” Schepers said.

The board’s main focus now will remain on the renovation of the high school. Several public hearings and actions to set up the funding structures for that project will be on the agenda for the next board meeting, set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 at the corporation office, 5379 E. Main St., Dubois.

The board also:

• Approved publishing the notice of determination, the notice of hearing on the lease agreement, the notice of hearing on additional appropriations and the notice of approval of a building corporation for the renovation at Northeast Dubois high school. All the actions must be preceded by public hearings, which will be held at the board’s July meeting, set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 at the corporation office, 5379 E. Main St., Dubois. The meeting is open to the public.

• Approved a reduction in force, which meant not renewing a contract with Baden Pund who was hired last school year to cover a leave of absence for a teacher who ended up retiring. The board voted last month to eliminate the teaching position.

• Approved supplemental fees for classes at the middle and high school.

• Approved a field trip for the Future Farmers of America to attend the National Convention in Indianapolis Oct. 30 through Nov. 1.

• Approved updates to the middle and high school handbooks, including an update to the schools’ tobacco policies that require students under 18 caught with tobacco products on school property to be referred to law enforcement on their first offense.

• Approved hiring Tara Rasche as principal of Dubois and Celestine elementaries. She takes over from Brenda Ferguson who retired.

• Approved making Nina Wininger and Scott Chatman full time custodians to absorb the positions freed up when Marvin Betz and Larry Hall retired. Wininger and Chatman had been part-time employees.

• Approved pay increases for classified staff. Classified staff refers to any school employee not included in the teachers’ collective bargaining for wages and benefits.

• Approved the disposal of several pieces of surplus equipment that is obsolete or broken and has no salvage value.

• Heard that online registration will be available for parents of returning students this year. The system will allow parents to register their kids for classes and pay any associated fees online.

• Approved the resignations of instructional assistant Zach Sermersheim and cafeteria staff Kendra Hasenour at the high school, instructional assistant Shawn Kalb at the middle school and instructional assistant Carly Merder at Dubois Elementary.

• Heard that online registration for returning students will open July 17.

• Heard that several events will be held on Wednesday, July 31, including a preschool open house from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., middle school registration from 4 to 8 p.m. and open houses and registration at the high school from 4 to 8 p.m. and registration and open houses at the two elementary schools from 4:30 to 7 p.m.

• Heard that all four schools will have registration from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 1.

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