When Lake Villa Elementary District 41 officials unveiled a plan to close J.J. Pleviak School during a meeting last month, the 200 or so parents and teachers in the packed auditorium didn't seem too fazed.
What primarily concerned the crowd was the discussion that came next: Whether the three remaining elementary schools would continue to serve kindergartners through sixth-graders or if a radical realignment that divided students into grade-specific buildings would be approved.
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The proposed changes are designed to save the financially struggling district money. If approved, they would be effective ahead of the 2014-15 term.
After months of consideration and public discussions, the board is expected to vote tonight on both the Pleviak closure and the fate of the other schools. District 41 Superintendent John Van Pelt believes officials are leaning toward maintaining the current K-6 alignment for B.J. Hooper, William L. Thompson and Olive C. Martin schools.
"There seems to be community and staff support for that grade configuration," Van Pelt said.
Peter J. Palombi Middle School, which serves seventh- and eighth-graders, isn't affected by either option.
Pleviak, however, is headed for closure either way.
Nine-year-old Ashlyn Bouma, who'll be a fourth-grader at Pleviak this fall, isn't happy about that.
"It's a great school," Ashlyn said. "I'm going to miss all the holiday parties we had, and the gym. It's really sad."
Trying to save money
The school board will discuss the proposals at Palombi Middle, 133 McKinley Ave.
The meeting is set to start at 6 p.m. in the district office there but will move to the school auditorium at 7 p.m., according to the agenda.
The building recommendations came from a financial advisory committee comprised of administrators, board members, teachers and parents.
Closing Pleviak could save District 41 nearly $1.2 million annually. Changing the grade configuration of the other schools could save even more cash.
The schools now are about $1.8 million in the red. Van Pelt blamed the fiscal problems on state funding cuts and an ongoing enrollment drop that also has resulted in less money from Springfield.
Districtwide enrollment was down about 400 kids this past year from a peak experienced in the 2007-08 term, and it's expected to continue dropping, officials have said.
With fewer and fewer students in class each year, keeping Pleviak open would mean operating four elementary buildings at 69 percent capacity, board President Michael Conway said.
"If we were to allow a fourth elementary (school) to remain open when we have ample space for all of the elementary students of our district in three buildings, we would not be ... following our obligation to be fiscally responsible with the district funds," Conway explained in an email.
Pleviak was chosen for several reasons. Among them:
• It's the oldest building and has higher maintenance costs.
• It's the district's only two-story elementary building, which limits access for some people.
• The construction loans for Martin and Thompson school haven't been fully paid off.
• Hooper is the only school on the east side of the district.
Forty-seven people work exclusively at Pleviak. That doesn't include staffers who split time at multiple buildings, such as coaches or band instructors.
If Pleviak closes, most of its employees will be transferred to other buildings, Van Pelt said. However, 17 of the district's roughly 300 employees could be laid off, Business Director Patricia Volling said.
The layoffs wouldn't be limited to Pleviak.
"This is a districtwide process," Van Pelt said.
Any staffing decisions will factor in contractual requirements including performance and seniority, officials said.
If the plans progress, a transition committee will form in August, and a subcommittee will focus on staffing, Van Pelt said.
With Pleviak's fate all but sealed, board members must also decide which students will attend which schools starting in fall 2014.
About 483 kids attended Pleviak this past year. An estimated 558 kids attended Hooper, including 33 in an early childhood program.
Thompson had about 536 students this past year, including 10 in an early childhood program. About 604 students were enrolled at Martin.
If the board opts to change the campuses' grade alignments, two buildings would serve kindergartners through fourth-graders and one would serve fifth- and sixth-graders.
Van Pelt isn't surprised that concept doesn't have a lot of traction with parents.
Keeping the schools as K-6 buildings "(is) what's familiar," he said.
"There are fewer unknowns," he added.
Realigning the grade levels will impact more people and could split siblings into different schools, Van Pelt said. It also would result in more building transitions, with kids changing campuses after fourth and sixth grade instead of just sixth grade.
Conversely, officials say changing the grade alignment would save more money -- $452,130 annually, as opposed to a projected $377,545 annual savings if the board pursues the other option. More money could be saved with that plan because one or two more staff positions could be eliminated, Van Pelt said.
It also would lead to simpler boundary lines for students, Conway said. Class sizes would be more evenly distributed, too, he said.
Although no formal polling has been done on the issue, more teachers anecdotally favor the current setup than the proposed realignment, Van Pelt said.
Conway believes the board is leaning toward the K-6 option, but some members may be on the fence.
"Based on the various factors in favor of each (option), it is easy to see why the decision is not clear cut," he said. "The board may need additional time to come to a decision."
A referendum, too?
The building changes wouldn't entirely resolve the district's money woes, officials have said.
A referendum that would seek a tax-rate increase as a way to raise more cash also is being considered, as are reductions in student programs and activities.
The soonest a referendum could appear on the ballot is April 2014. The deadline to draft a question is December.
Pleviak student Ashlyn Bouma isn't the only member of her family saddened by the thought of the school's closure. So is her mother, Bobbi, who attended Pleviak as a child.
Bobbi Bouma understands the financial reasons behind the proposed shuttering -- but that doesn't make the concept any easier to digest.
"My brothers and sisters went there. My friends went there. I have a lot of good memories there," she said.
Regardless of which options the board approves, Conway knows the district's staff and families will have to adjust to the changes. He's confident they can.
"If all of the families, students, teachers and community members work together and take pride that District 41 provides a high-quality education for our students, the transition through any changes will be successful," Conway said.
• Daily Herald staff writer Lee Filas contributed to this report.