Survey to gather public opinion in NE school district

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
An architect has recommended closing Celestine Elementary at the end of the 2019-20 school year to help with the school district's financial woes.


DUBOIS — Constituents within the Northeast Dubois County School Corporation who haven’t been able to attend any of the district’s public meetings will still be able to share their opinions on the school corporation’s future.

The school board decided to create a survey to gather public opinion on changes to the corporation and future needs at its public work session Monday night. The work session is part of a facilities planning process the board is undergoing to prepare for $3.2 million becoming available in its debt service fund, which schools typically use to complete large construction projects and renovations.

The board wants to ensure that the funds are used to position the corporation for future success as the district prepares for the general fund referendum — which was passed in 2016 and offers a $600,000 boost annually — to expire in 2024.

“We’re not looking at just this project,” said Board President Mary Pankey. “We’re looking at what we need to do in the future.”

Additional debt service funds will become available in 2023 when the corporation pays off more construction debt. Schools typically keep their construction debt at a constant level because the debt service fund is funded through property taxes. Keeping a steady amount of debt keeps a steady tax rate.

Architect George Link with VPS Architecture of Evansville is working with the board to plan for the corporation’s future. The process began with Link conducting a study to determine corporation needs and how to use existing buildings to meet those needs.

In his recommendations, Link suggested using the $3 million to renovate the career and tech classrooms and science labs at the high school and the family and consumer science classroom at Dubois Middle School, turning it into multiple classrooms. Link estimated those renovations at $3.1 million.

In his study, Link also looked further into the corporation’s future. There, Link recommended moving the fourth grade to the middle school beginning with the 2019-20 year. Then, for the 2020-21 school year, Link recommended moving all the elementary students to Dubois Elementary and closing Celestine Elementary.

Pankey shared that closing Celestine Elementary has been on the board’s radar for many years, but the board held out hoping that the school’s enrollment would even out or grow and that the state legislature would do something to help small rural schools.

In Indiana, schools are funded by property taxes and by state tuition paid by the state legislature on a per student basis. The amount schools get per student fluctuates a bit year to year as it takes into account factors such as special need students and poverty.

This year, Northeast Dubois is getting about $5,523 from the state for each of its 821 students, about $4.5 million. The state money goes into the education fund — formerly the general fund — and is used to cover costs directly associated with the classroom, with the bulk going to teacher salaries and benefits. Property taxes cover all other expenses, including school buses, building maintenance and construction.

Although a new law went into effect in January that gives school administrators more flexibility in how they use funds, state laws still restrict the use of the different funding. The debt service fund, for example, cannot be used to cover costs designated for the education fund.

Declining enrollment and changes to the state funding structures over the last decade put Northeast Dubois in a precarious financial situation that led to administrators using the rainy day fund — similar to a savings account for schools— to cover education fund expenses. The also led to the 2016 campaign for a general fund referendum and ultimately to Link’s recommendation to close Celestine Elementary, though the board has not decided whether it will follow that recommendation.

The recommendation to close Celestine Elementary has created unrest in the corporation. While some community members in attendance Monday night continued to express a desire for Celestine to stay open, others said that if Celestine had to close to ensure Northeast Dubois as a whole could survive, then that’s what needs to happen.

“We need to fight for the Jeeps, not for Celestine or for Dubois [Elementary],” Amy Seger said. “Let’s be a Jeep.”

Kristi Brinkman shared similar thoughts.

“If [improving Northeast Dubois] means we have to close a building that we should have closed 20 years ago, we shouldn’t even be having this conversation,” she said.

Although the board has not decided whether or not to close Celestine Elementary, board members know they will have to make difficult decisions now to ensure the corporation’s future success. Providing a quality education is the board’s priority.

“We have to find the most financially-solvent way to provide education to all our students,” Pankey said.

But the board also wants to make decisions that the corporation’s students, teachers and community members can support. That’s where the survey comes in. The survey will ask questions about facilities needs, educational programming, timing of any school/grade level configuration changes and property taxes. The board’s goal is to launch the survey on Friday, Feb. 15, and close it on Monday, March 4. The board will schedule a work session to discuss the survey results in early March.

Board members look forward to receiving the surveys, as the results will help them make their decisions.

“There’s a lot of decisions yet to be made,” said Board Member Bernie Knies. “[The survey] is going to help give us a direction.”

Board member John Siebert agreed.

“It’s really going to help us define what we’re doing,” Siebert said.

Knies and Siebert also pointed out that the board still needs several pieces of information to make informed decisions, including cost estimates for creating various school and grade-level configurations, how much money different configurations could save the corporation and cost estimates for possible improvement projects, such as renovating the high school science labs.

Regardless of where discussion went Monday night, it always came back to providing the best education possible to Northeast Dubois students.

“What I just keep focusing on as we go through this process is that whatever we decide, whatever configuration our school has,” Siebert said, “[our school] has to be better than it is today.”

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