Elma Elementary—To be

Howard-Winneshiek School Board member Jeff Murphy gave his reasons on teh decision to keep Elma Elementary open as Jan Carmen listens.

That is the answer. Last week, it was questionable what would happen to Elma Elementary with the cuts the Howard-Winneshiek School Board had to make for the coming school year. It came down to three close votes. Karlos McClure made a motion to take option one, which among other cuts had Elma Elementary closing. The motion was seconded by Jan Carmen. Jeff Murphy, Marilyn Reis and Duane Bodermann all voted “no.”
The second motion was again given by McClure for option three, which also had Elma closing, with additional cuts. Again, it was seconded by Carmen and voted down by the other board members. A discussion was asked for with each proposal, with no response.
Bodermann then made a motion, seconded by Murphy to accept option two, which had Elma staying open, but taking cuts in all the schools, including teachers and programs. Reis started the discussion on this option. “Last year, we felt we were in code red and made necessary decisions (which closed the Ridgeway Elementary). This year we still need to make decisions.” She added there was time to confer with the strategic planning process which would allow community members the opportunity to look at the same figures the board has been looking at. “I am in favor of making reductions that are NOT permanent.” She noted quite a few of the reductions were already geared toward Elma Elementary.
McClure was concerned about the loss of students. “At 10 minutes after 5:00, I got a phone call.” The caller had a list of eight families with 20 students who would open enroll out if Elma was to stay open. “If we close, people will leave. If we don’t close, people will leave. I said last year if we didn’t make enough cuts, this year would be next. And here we are.”
Murphy thanked those who contacted him and other board members for their views. “You input was important. I will charge all of you to continue. Please participate.” He said the board is not making decisions lightly. “We’re all volunteers. We don’t receive a dime.” He went on to say there was not enough time to make a big decision. “We learned we had to make cuts on March 10 and today is March 28. That is 18 days. That’s not enough time to ask questions and receive the information we need. I’m simply asking the board to see the strategic planning process through. We need more than 18 days to make a decision.”
Carmen gave her comments. “I agree with Karlos. I think no matter what they (strategic planning committee) comes up with, we’re still going to get opposition. I trust the figures Dianne (Superintendent Anderson) and the administrators have given us. I’m thinking of the other 1,250 students in our district.” She ended by saying she wouldn’t be on the board next year.
Even though Bodermann is from Elma area he said, “I don’t want to cut anything in Cresco either.” But he mentioned Elma had consistently taken cuts in the past. He likened the bad year to farming. He said the board had to see it through.
Anderson concluded, “There is a lot of pressure on the strategic planning committee.” A vote was then taken with McClure and Carmen voting “no” to option two and Reis, Murphy and Bodermann voting “yes.”
The decision of keeping Elma open and making other reductions by the school board was based on comments made by the public at two public open forum meetings. The first was held in Elma and was reported in last week’s paper. The second meeting was held at the Crestwood High School auditorium on March 22. Both meetings had about 100 folks attending and 27 speakers.
Whereas all the speakers in Elma were in favor of keeping that elementary open to help the daycare, businesses and keep students in the school district, the meeting in Cresco also had a different side to the story—including about one-third of the speakers defending the music program.
Many of the arguments for keeping the outlying centers open—especially Elma at this time—were the same as the night before. The ride to Cresco will be too far for young children. Several parents were concerned about their children’s innocence, with kindergarteners riding the same bus as seniors.
Many referred to the strategic planning committee, which was set up to help give recommendations to the school board, but held its first meeting on March 24, just four days before the board was to make huge decisions on budget cuts. Mike Panos said, “We need to work together, but let the strategic planning committee do its job.” He was also concerned about “who will fill our churches, our parks and our classroom seats” if Elma closed.
Retha Praska open enrolls her children from Alta Vista to Elma. She made it clear her shopping business would not go to Cresco if her children did not attend school in How-Winn. She asked, “Are options one, two and three the only options?”
Rainel Johnson of Elma brought some visual props—her two children. “This is Ben, age nine, and Chloe, age two. Remember the faces of these children. And, it’s not just my children it’s other children [who would be affected by closing the Elma school].”
Desiree Kowalske has children in the high school, junior high and Elma Elementary. “You closed Ridgeway last year and it didn’t seem to make any difference. If you close all the outlying schools and it doesn’t help, then what?” She also wondered what this was teaching the kids. “That the bottom line is more important than other things?”
Carla Moser of Lime Springs reminded the board, “Families have purchased a home in Lime Springs because of the school.” She said to look closely at all the number before making big cuts. She also put a plug in for Rob Hughes, principal of Elma and Lime Springs Elementaries. “The district would lose a tremendous person if Rob Hughes is gone.”
Several community members spoke about working together. James Kitchen said “collaboration” is the word to remember.
Although from Elma, Erin Ludwig said she wants what is best for Howard-Winneshiek. “But I do have concerns about how you are making the decisions. What is the long-term impact of closing centers? Closing the centers will make the district smaller. Are these our only options?”
Other speakers did not want the emotions of those trying to keep their school open to cloud the vision of the board members. Jennifer Wiley said, “I went to four different school buildings in this district. The building did not give me my education. It is the teachers, aids and coaches. Look at the district as a whole.”
Melissa Blockhus told the board not to cut education because of some emotionally-charged statements.
Paula Galvin has been teaching for 21 years at Cresco and Elma. “My concern is the 1,280 students in our school district.” With the 54 students at Elma, that still leaves over 1,200 other students. “The bottom line is we want a quality education for all our kids. You are here to make decisions for Howard-Winneshiek children—not Elma children or Lime Springs children, or Cresco or Ridgeway children.”
Teacher Heather Suckow reminded those present it isn’t only the outlying centers who take cuts. She said cuts have taken place in the Title I program. It used to be students through sixth grade were eligible for Title help, then it lowered to fourth grade and now it is at third grade in Cresco.
She also questioned, “If the strategic planning committee comes back with having to close a center, Then what are you going to say?”
Jill Johnson of Lime Springs and Bruce Weigel of Elma both answered that question when they spoke. Johnson said, “If the strategic plan says close—most parents would be behind that but we deserve a chance to see that’s what really needs to happen.” She also wants the school to have a viable plan for five and 10 years down the road.
Weigel agreed. “We will accept the decision after the strategic plan.” He wants to make sure all the numbers are accurate in per student cost at all the centers.
Harlan Larson, custodian at Lime Springs, has his job on the line for budget cuts. It is suggested to reduce his job to half-time. He was concerned that he wouldn’t be available for emergencies such as throw-ups, changing toilet paper and towels during the day and being there for snow removal. He added, “Students could be getting sick because of less sanitary conditions,” since he would only be available part-time.
The music department is set to have big cuts. Jason Dobbs, high school band instructor asked, “Why is the music department being cut disproportionately high?” Some parts of the program were being cut 33 and 66 percent, with several trips and contests being cut. He explained, “Music is part of ‘No Child Left Behind.’ You are not just talking transportation. You are talking about cutting curriculum.” He added student academics is increased by music.
“Don’t we want high goals for our students to achieve?” Already the fifth and sixth grade bands are further behind their counterparts in other districts by as much as a year.
Student Bronc Dykstra said, “In band we learn leadership skills, discipline, being on time and commitment. It also gives me a head start to college.”
Callie Iseli added, “I learn so much at honor band and the one your want to cut is the one I learn the most at. Being in band is the highlight of my day.”
Other students speaking in favor of keeping band the way it is were Tuff Dykstra, Zack Berg and Rachel Frana. Parents speaking were Peggy Berg and Rose Dykstra.
Elementary music teacher Barb Holstrom did not want to see the time cut from two 30-minute classes to one 45-minute class. “Kindergarten and first graders cannot concentrate that long. Let us sit down with you. Let us be involved. Don’t mandate to us.”
Most everyone was in agreement they didn’t want to be in the shoes of the school board members in trying to make major budget cuts for the second year in a row, but they did want them to make educated decisions regarding the future of the district.

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