The Beatrice School District Board of Education held its Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday night, drawing in a large crowd to discuss the potential elementary restructuring.
Paddock Lane Elementary Principal Betty Replogle and Kevin Janssen, the principal of Stoddard and Lincoln elementaries, were on hand to discuss four options for potential changes to the elementary school structure aimed at reducing class sizes.
The district, like many school systems around the state, is faced with a dilemma, Replogle said. Beatrice Public Schools has declining enrollment, declining tax revenue and declining state aid, she said, which has resulted in a $500,000 budget shortfall.
Replogle said the district is also trying to avoid disproportionate class sizes. This requires students to be shuffled around to different schools, she said, a problem schools have to deal with every year.
Working with Superintendent Pat Nauroth and Director of Curriculum Jackie Nielsen, Replogle and Janssen said they have developed four possible solutions.
The first option would allow the schools to stay pretty much the same. Lincoln, Paddock and Stoddard would continue to be kindergarten through fifth grade schools, but this would involve moving students between sections and could lead to siblings being separated. It would also cut sections from second and third grades, causing class sizes to increase.
The second option would be to continue to leave students in their current elementary schools, but decrease the third grade at Lincoln down to one section and move a teacher over to Paddock Lane for a third section of second grade, Janssen said.
Option three would reduce either Lincoln or Stoddard to a 1.5 section school, which would be in the model of the old Cedar Elementary before it became the preschool. Paddock Lane would become a three-section building and Lincoln or Stoddard would have some grades with two sections.
The fourth option would turn Lincoln into a kindergarten through second grade school and Stoddard would become a third through fifth grade school, while Paddock Lane would remain a kindergarten through fifth grade school, Janssen said, due to special education and other programs held at that facility.
“You would not save the district any money by leveling Paddock because of the programs that they have there,” Janssen said. “You would have to have staff in every single building, which would cost us quite a bit of money, so that's not an option.”
Replogle and Janssen weighed the pros and cons of the fourth option, saying that the move could mean a more specific focus on the developmental needs of kids by grade level, though it would mean the loss of programs like reading buddies, which matches younger students with others from higher grade levels. Parental involvement might also decline in schools where siblings are split, they noted.
The leveled buildings would not need to be repurposed, they said, and it could make room for more STEM opportunities and other learning activities.
However, the leveled schools could also mean that siblings are split between different schools, creating the need for multiple pick-up and drop off locations, which could cause problems for families, they said. The multiple drop-off locations could potentially be solved by creating some kind of shuttle between schools.
“We've talked about if it would be possible to have a bus shuttle between the two buildings, Lincoln and Stoddard,” Janssen said. “Specifically, to get siblings from point A to point B, so parents only have to drop off at one place. One of the reasons that we chose Lincoln for K-2 is that would be where our bus hub would be."
There’s no place to park eight or nine buses at Stoddard, Janssen said. In order to find room for the buses, the baseball field at the school would be removed and replaced with gravel.
The options discussed at the meeting on Monday weren’t necessarily ones that the planners liked or disliked, Janssen said, but the district is in a situation in which something must be done.
“It's a matter of what we would do and what is going to be best for the district,” Janssen said. “That is why we're here tonight, to be able to talk about that.”
The board opened the floor to the public at the end of the meeting for questions and comments.
One parent, Brent Essink, said a big change in the elementary structure wouldn’t help the school’s relationship with the community. Earlier in the meeting, John Brazell, BPS' director of business affairs, mentioned that the district had 135 students transfer to other schools in the past five years, and Essink wondered if part of the reason wasn’t the district turning the former Cedar Elementary into a preschool.
Essink also said that the potential idea of adding a shuttle between schools would add to district costs.
Neal Trantham, who has three kids attending Lincoln Elementary, said he encouraged the school board to think hard about the potential value of such a change and to consider the unintended consequences as well. His family loves their neighborhood school, he said.
“There are those of us that live just blocks away from our school,” Trantham said. “The convenience is one thing, but that's not the main thing for us. It's feeling like our kids are part of something.”
School Board President Jon Zimmerman said that, while he didn’t want to see kids moved out of their schools, if the board did nothing, students would continue to be moved as needed.
Zimmerman said a decision has to be made due to budget issues.
“It's not easy to go to the public and say 'We want more money,' because the public don't want to give no more money,” Zimmerman said. “Our levy is the top it can be. We have a certain amount of savings. You've heard before that if we don't get $500,000, we're digging into our savings. As soon as that's gone, we're paying for everything out of our savings. Salaries get paid out of savings. Eventually, that's going to go.”
Trantham then asked how much the plan would save the district.
"It’s not about saving money," Zimmerman said. "It’s about students that are constantly being moved around to different schools. It’s about structuring the classes so the district doesn’t have to move students every year."
Trantham asked the board about a timeline for a decision, to which Nauroth said the first step was to touch base with staff on the subject and the next part is to talk with parents.
Nauroth said he’d like to see the first part of March spent having conversations in schools with parents, trying to make them aware of the options, getting feedback and then coming back to the board with recommendations about where the district should go.
No decisions were made at Monday night’s meeting.