Fate of Celestine Elementary still undecided

BY LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

DUBOIS — The fate of Celestine Elementary was a hot topic at Northeast Dubois High School Tuesday night.

George Link of VPS Architecture of Evansville held the first of three community discussion sessions as part of a planning study for future facilities projects throughout the corporation. Link has spent his 28-year career on school building projects around Southwest Indiana, and is leading the study at Northeast Dubois. The study is part of the recommendation from the 2015 general fund feasibility study by Brookston-based Administrator Assistance that preceded the property tax referendum that passed in the 2016 election. The referendum offered a needed boost to funding after declining enrollment in the district left the corporation with deficits. The school board approved the VPS study in October in preparation for debt that will be paid off in 2020, allowing the corporation to take on new debt to complete new projects.

To start the meeting, Link reminded the 35 people in attendance of the three options offered in the 2015 study. Those options were: restructuring the grade configuration into one elementary school serving pre-K through second grade, a middle school serving third through sixth grade and a junior-senior high serving seventh through 12th grades; restructuring into one elementary school serving pre-K through fourth grade, a middle school serving fifth through eighth grade and a high school serving ninth through 12th grade; and keeping the current configuration, which would likely require voters to again approve a general fund referendum. Link offered an additional option — consolidating into two buildings, one for lower grades and one for higher grades.

“I think three buildings makes sense,” said Steve Polen of Jasper. “Four buildings doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Polen’s daughter attends seventh grade at Dubois Elementary, and is an alumna of Celestine Elementary, as is Polen. Polen said he didn’t want to see Celestine close, but he understood the need given falling enrollment.

Currently, Link said, the corporation’s four buildings can house 1,300 students, but current enrollment is 819. Enrollment is also projected to continue to decrease.

Link met with Superintendent Bill Hochgesang and the school board prior to the community meeting. He also asked the administrators and board members not to attend the community meetings in hopes that their absence would allow community members to speak more freely.

In addition to facilities information, Link also shared some updates on the corporation’s financial situation provided by Hochgesang. According to the data, the corporation’s enrollment is about 33 students fewer than projected in the 2015 study. Since funding for the general fund is tied to enrollment and supplied by the state at a rate of about $5,500 per student, lower enrollment means the corporation is receiving less funding than projected to cover general fund expenses such as teacher salaries, insurance and operating expenses.

Several in attendance asked what the corporation was doing with the $600,000 raised from the referendum annually and what cost-saving measures were taken. According to the information Hochgesang provided, the referendum paid for the first raise for employees in five years, state-mandated retirement costs for employees, extra-curricular salaries and a pre-school/elementary music teacher. To save money, the corporation eliminated a high school language arts position and two aide positions, and dropped the director of school improvement, assessment and technology to part-time. Those cuts were made in the summer 2017 and saved the corporation $110,000. However, the corporation still lost $182,280 in the general fund for the 2017-18 school year due to a decrease in enrollment.

Although Tuesday’s meeting was meant to gather community input about future projects, most in attendance simply wanted to know what will happen to Celestine Elementary, the smaller of the corporation’s two elementary schools.

“I don’t want to lose the teachers at Celestine,” said Kelly Tretter of Celestine. “They mean a lot to me.”

Tretter has a young son who will enter school in a few years. She and her family live near Celestine Elementary, and she attended the meeting to hear what is in the future for the corporation.

For people wanting to know the future of Celestine Elementary, Tuesday night offered no answers. By the end of the study, however, Link said there will be options for the school board to consider. Ultimately, the school board has the final say on whether Celestine stays or goes.

Link will host two more community discussion sessions during the study to gather community input. They are set for Thursday, Dec. 13, and Monday, Jan. 7, in the Northeast Dubois High School cafeteria, 4711 N Dubois Rd. NE, Dubois. Both sessions are scheduled at 6:30 p.m.




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