July 13, 2020

SAD 1 chief suggests closings compromise> Two proposals emerge during board

PRESQUE ISLE — The local school superintendent Wednesday night proposed what he believed to be a compromise in the debate on closing an elementary school and redistricting students in view of a dwindling student population.

But during the monthly meeting of SAD 1 directors, some board members suggested instead the closing of a middle school.

Superintendent Gehrig Johnson proposed that Gouldville Elementary School be closed and the 100 or so students be transferred to Zippel Elementary School. A portable classroom could be used to house the art and music programs from the latter school.

The grade assignments — kindergarten through fifth grade — at both Zippel and Pine Street Elementary School would remain the same, Johnson said.

An earlier proposal recommended that kindergarten through second grade be housed in one elementary school and grades three through five be in a separate school. That recommendation drew the ire of several parents at a public hearing earlier this month.

Some board members said, however, that closing one of Presque Isle’s two middle schools should be studied.

The district is composed of Presque Isle, Castle Hill, Chapman, Mapleton and Westfield. The current debate surrounds only schools in Presque Isle.

Johnson noted that the board is split on the issue of grade leveling — when all pupils in one grade are put in a school — but said the time is right to close a building.

“We need to look at the big picture,” Johnson told the board.

During the first year, the estimated savings would be $175,000, and $180,000 would be saved in the second year of the change, according to the superintendent’s proposal.

The district’s student population has been on a slow, steady decline the past 17 years, according to information distributed during the meeting. Gouldville, the oldest of the city’s three elementary schools, has 112 students. Pine Street and Zippel each have more than 300 pupils.

Some board members thought that Gouldville was the wrong school to close. Board member Pam Palm suggested closing Cunningham Middle School and combining those students with those at Skyway Middle School.

“I’d rather have older students go to a portable classroom,” Palm said. “I feel we’re still rushing this.”

Palm proposed that the issue be tabled for a year until more study is done. Nancy Cronkite, another board member, said the middle school option should be pursued.

“As a parent, I am concerned about another 100 little bodies in [Zippel],” Cronkite said.

Board member Terry Sandusky questioned whether the Gouldville students were being treated fairly by being housed in a “poor” facility. When the district attempted to close Gouldville about five years ago, the school was full. Now that the situation has changed, it has become a matter of “fairness” and “justice,” Sandusky said.

Lori Kenneson, a board member, questioned housing the entire alternative learning program for behaviorally and emotionally handicapped students at Zippel, which would absorb most of the Gouldville students.

Board Chairman Robert Davis said Johnson’s proposal was a “good starting point for discussion.” While the recommendation keeps the student-teacher ratio low, it also keeps the appearance of neighborhood schools, Davis said.

School officials hope to have a plan ready for a board vote Feb. 11. After that, the state has to give its approval in order for the city to hold a referendum on the proposed closing.

Local school officials hope the election can be held before the district budget meeting in May.

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