Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ocheyedan school to close doors

OCHEYEDAN-May 29 is bound to be an emotional day at Ocheyedan Elementary.

The fourth-graders will pack up their book bags for the last time at the Ocheyedan building. That happens on the last day of school every year.

The end of this school year will be a little different, though.

The teachers and support staff also will collect their belongings, and the third-grade class at Ben Franklin Elementary in Sibley will not be looking forward to attending a different school in the fall.

Instead, Ocheyedan Elementary, which educates preschoolers and fourth-graders, will be closing at the end of the school year.

More than 100 district residents met Monday evening in the high school auditorium in Sibley to hear the Sibley-Ocheyedan District School Board of Education vote 401 in favor of closing the Ocheyedan school.

While district superintendent Jeff Herzberg is not attached to the Ocheyedan building emotionally, he understands the many Sibley and Ocheyedan residents who are.

"It's a grieving process," he said. "Anytime a school building is closed, it's like a family member passing away."

Because of decreasing enrollment and budget losses, Sibley-Ocheyedan School District officials began exploring the option of moving fourth-grade classes to Ben Franklin Elementary and determining where the preschoolers would go during a special meeting held in December.

Herzberg said enrollment drives school budgets. The district receives about $5,400 in state aid for every student. This school year, the district saw a decline of 45 students, creating a loss of about $240,000 in its budget.

"We weren't ready to lose 45 students this year. We thought we'd be down five or even up a little," Herzberg said. "We know we're also going to lose about 30 students from the senior/kindergarten exchange next school year."

He said a mobile society is partially to blame for the declining enrollment. Sixteen families with three or more students moved out of the district prior to the 2008-09 school year.

That drop is an issue that the Iowa Department of Education predicts the district will continue to deal with in the near future, he said. Besides the number of students lost between this year's graduating seniors and next year's incoming kindergarteners, projections show the district enrollment dropping by about 50 more students over the next five years.

At the December meeting, Herzberg cited a number of reasons the district would save money by closing the Ocheyedan site. He said having the building open will cost the district about $143,000 this year. Closing the building would save the district an estimated $106,500. He said keeping the building open also would likely force the district to spend $90,000 to repair a boiler in the near future.

Prior to making its decision, the board allowed for three Ocheyedan residents to voice their concerns about the school closing at Monday night's meeting.

Brett Kleve said he was concerned that if the board voted to close the school, it might consider building projects with the left over money already allocated in the 2009-10 school year budget.

"I don't want to see any construction," Kleve said.

Board president Kyle Grimes assured Kleve that the money would be placed in the general fund and no new construction would take place.

Sherie Kleve was more concerned that the board has not spent adequate time on the issue.

"Many nights, I have woken up furious about what is going on," she said. "The 2009-10 school year budget is already set and it includes the Ocheyedan school. If that is so, why are we here? Five months is not adequate time. It's not fair to the kids. The dollar is what's talking here, not the kids' welfare."

Chris Kruger confronted Herzberg about a discussion he had with her husband, Mark, a member of the Ocheyedan City Council, four years ago.

"You said that if and when something happened with the school, we would have a two-year notice," Kruger said. "I ought to tell you Jeff, I thought you'd take more consideration to this than five months."

Herzberg did not deny having the conversation, but said no one could have predicted the economic crisis the nation is facing.

"I did mean that you all would have a two-year notice until we had our count day on Oct. 1 this year," Herzberg said. "I couldn't foresee to the extent the economy would be in. Nobody did. We had trouble forecasting that, and we weren't ready to lose 45 students."

After Herzberg answered their questions, Grimes opened the decision to the board members. Jeff Knobloch made the motion to close the Ocheyedan center, and Keith Newman seconded the motion.

"With decreasing enrollment, it does not make sense to keep the building open," Grimes said. "We are convinced there is ample space in Ben Franklin Elementary. The extra costs of keeping the Ocheyedan center open are no longer a luxury the district can afford."

Board members Knobloch, Newman, Grimes and Paul Feldkamp voted in favor of closing the building.

The lone vote against the closing came from Todd Ackerman of Ocheyedan.

"I don't know why we're doing this," Ackerman said. "It all comes down to what is best for the kids. That's not what I've been hearing. This decision all comes down to the money."

The district will retain ownership of the building after school is dismissed at Ocheyedan Elementary for the final time next month.

Arrangements will be made to occupy empty classrooms at Ben Franklin Elementary with incoming fourth-graders.

The future of preschool in Ocheyedan is yet to be decided, but Herzberg said keeping preschool at the Ocheyedan center is a possibility, as is renting out the space as a community building or office space.

This article appeared in the April 25, 2009 edition of The N'West Iowa REVIEW.

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