Doubts emerging in St. Charles school closure debate

 
 
Posted10/16/2015 5:29 AM
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With two public forums in the books, doubts are emerging in the St. Charles school closure debate over a tax increase and plans that could move sixth-graders back to elementary schools.

As the public weighs in, feedback about what parents don't want may create a clearer picture of how school board members should address declining finances and student enrollment in District 303.

During a forum Thursday night at Thompson Middle School, nobody believed the district would be able to get voters to approve a tax increase for construction costs. Speakers expressed the same doubt at the district's first forum Wednesday night at Haines Middle School. If that sentiment remains, it may quickly render untenable the only school closure option involving a referendum.

That option closes Lincoln and Wasco elementary schools and Haines Middle School. It also calls for a $45 million makeover at Thompson to accommodate up to 1,300 students. But the district would have to ask voters for money.

None of the other options involve putting a question on local ballots, but another doubt could further prune the options being discussed. Thompson parents, just like the parents at the Haines Middle School forum on Wednesday, expressed concern over any options that keep sixth-graders at elementary schools. Sixth-graders currently are at the district's middle schools, which gives them access to a slew of extracurricular activities and enhanced learning opportunities, such as foreign language classes.

If keeping sixth-graders in the middle schools becomes the prevailing public preference, that would also eliminate the option to just close Haines and give Thompson a $20 million makeover. The district could find that money without asking voters by using a $7 million state grant already in the bank, cutting 23 jobs and shifting sixth-graders to the elementary schools.

If both those options are gone, there are only two options remaining.

The first is to do nothing. The second is to close only Lincoln and Wasco elementary schools and change attendance boundaries.

Closing Lincoln and Wasco would involve shifting 600 students to other buildings and cutting 19 jobs, which would only save the district about $1.7 million per year. Cutting costs is one of the district's major goals in exploring school closures -- district officials believe state funding cuts, pension reform and a pending state-imposed property tax freeze could blow an $18 million hole in the district's budget.

The district also is experiencing declining enrollment. A committee studying that phenomenon expects it to continue for the foreseeable future, which is also fueling the discussion about making the district as cost-efficient as possible.

The next forum on the pending closures is Oct. 20 at Wredling Middle School. For details, visit district.d303.org.

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