Patrons plead with HCCSC board for schools

Nick Vickrey, a former teacher at Bishop Luers and Huntington North high schools whose children go to Northwest Elementary, makes a case during the Huntington County Community School Corporation’s Board of School Trustees public work session held Monday, June 5. Vickrey was among 15 people who offered opinions regarding closing of some of the district’s elementary schools due to declining enrollment.
Nick Vickrey, a former teacher at Bishop Luers and Huntington North high schools whose children go to Northwest Elementary, makes a case during the Huntington County Community School Corporation’s Board of School Trustees public work session held Monday, June 5. Vickrey was among 15 people who offered opinions regarding closing of some of the district’s elementary schools due to declining enrollment. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin

It was a night in which public comment became a plea to save the schools, as concerned parents addressed the Huntington County Community School Corporation Board of School Trustees during a public work session held Monday, June 5.

It was the largest-attended work session since they began earlier in the spring. Most were there to make a plea to keep their home elementary schools open, as the board contemplates how to handle the reduction in enrollment juxtaposed with growing repair needs on some of the aging school buildings.

As part of a pledge to make the decision-making process as transparent and inclusive as possible, the board invited public comment on what it has narrowed down to as three options on closing schools:

• Close Lancaster and Northwest elementary schools, and re-open Horace Mann.

• Close Lancaster, Northwest and Roanoke; re-open Horace Mann and build a new elementary in the northern part of the county.

• Leave all buildings as they are currently.

“This is an opportunity to hear thoughts and feelings from the public,” said Board President Matt Roth.

Fifteen people spoke, most of them asking board members to spare their school.

John Stoeckley, a member of the Roanoke Town Council, spoke in support of keeping Roanoke Elementary School open as an economic asset to the town.

“Roanoke Elementary is a vital part of our community. For 27 years Jackson Township has experienceD growth – the largest growth in Huntington County,” he said. “Part of that growth has to do with people that look at property in the country. They want to see what kind of school system we have. They drive into town, they see a nice town. They go up to the school and see an award-winning, four star school. And it does sell property.”

Other speakers had more emotionally-tied reasons for wanting their schools to stay open. Nick Vickrey brought with him his children, who attend Northwest Elementary. He said that he wanted the corporation to “do nothing,” and leave all schools open as is.

“I know that closing Lancaster or Northwest may make financial sense, and opening this building (Horace Mann) may make financial sense, but I’m asking you to push it down the road, in favor of making a really great economic decision,” Vickrey said.

Lancaster resident Dave Herber spoke in favor of keeping Lancaster Elementary open.

“Lancaster has been an excellent, five-star school,” he said. “I just don’t think we need to jump into building another school.”

Roth said he was writing down all the questions and comments made from the public to allow the board to contemplate the input as part of its decision-making process.

Board members also heard from Todd Samuelson of H.J. Umbaugh & Associates, certified public accountants, on the financing options available to making capital improvements throughout the school corporation. Samuelson told the board that the corporation currently makes about $5 million in payments per year. However, in 2018, retiring of some debts will drop that amount to under $3 million. A final payment in 2023 would complete any debt service payments.

“In other words, we have the ability to issue bonds this year, 2017,” Samuelson said, of around $4.7 million. He added that a short, two-year repayment schedule is advised so that the corporation’s debt service levy does not go down. That would allow HCCSC to consider issuing a larger bond of about $40 million to take on more capital improvements without increasing the property tax levy.

HCCSC Transportation Director Vanessa Fields also addressed the board about bus routes that would need to be reworked, depending on which school closing option the board chooses. She presented a proposed bus route map that contemplates closing Lancaster and Northwest schools and re-opening Horace Mann. The southern third of the county’s elementary children would go to Salamonie School, with some riding times taking roughly 33 minutes.

The next school board regular meeting will be held Monday, June 12, at 7 p.m. in the Horace Mann Education Center.