Panel recommends shutting down school; resistance comes fast

School district officials backed away from a committee's recommendation to close Bess Maxwell Elementary School on Thursday as one by one teachers, parents, volunteers and alumni protested the proposal.

Although the decision to close a school ultimately rests with the School Board, Superintendent Don Olson said the district will search for other means to save money.

"Believe me, we've gotten some frank and valid answers from you," he said. "Your public comment has really set the direction for me. I believe this board will look at other avenues to find ways to keep our district together."

If the board was inclined to close an elementary school, there would be one more year of evaluation and study before its members would make a final decision, Olson said.

A nine-member advisory committee, including community members and business owners, recommended closing Bess Maxwell after meeting with teachers and staff Wednesday. The committee presented a list of arguments for and against closing their school and the other Crescent City-area schools, said Steve Godla, the district's assistant superintendent of instruction and educational services.

The School Board created the advisory committee in February after Olson said the district had lost about 1,200 students, the equivalent of $6 million in annual revenue, since the 2002-03 school year. In March, the committee narrowed the list to Pine Grove and Bess Maxwell.

Bess Maxwell currently has about 220 students, according to a district enrollment report.

"This isn't one of those volunteer civic duties that is a feel-good duty," Godla said Thursday. "When you're talking about school consolidation, no matter how it is handled, it is going to be emotional and it's going to upset people."

And people were upset, especially when Olson said that a future use for the Bess Maxwell building may be for a district-funded charter school. Some parents suggested implementing four-day school weeks, sending a packet of work home with students on Fridays.

Other parents were concerned about how special education as well as mainstream students would be affected if Bess Maxwell closes. One parent pointed out that closing an elementary school could negatively affect Del Norte High School's nearly 95 percent graduation rate.

"If you shut down one school you are going to overpopulate classrooms," said Samantha Frick, a parent. "And that 95 percent graduation rate ... our graduation rate will not be that. Teachers are stressed out, students are stressed out."

Jessica Prince, a teacher at Bess Maxwell, pointed out that closing one school could result in the others being at capacity or close to capacity. She asked if the inter-district transfer program would still be available if that happens and warned that closing an elementary school could lead to parents placing their children in charter schools.

"One student leaving a district school would be a deficit of $6,000," Prince said. "Ten students leaving, that's $60,000. Closing a school will not only not improve the district's financial situation but could also cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Bonnie Webb, a fifth-grade teacher at Pine Grove, said that she and her colleagues felt no sense of relief even though the committee did not recommend their school for closure. At a time when teachers are preparing for state testing, she said, wondering what the advisory committee's decision would be just made matters worse.

"We are dealing with the stress as adults in dealing with the school closure in a climate where we're trying to get kids ready for the state testing that's coming very very soon," Webb said. "It is extremely difficult to take the stress away for the moment and deal with the test prep scenario in our classrooms."

Webb added that she is appalled that a conversation over closing a school has come before the district has considered closing its main office during the summer.

The debate also sparked some contention between the local Hmong community and the district over the advisory committee's use of the word "segregation" on the pro side for closing Bess Maxwell. The Hmong community's strong presence at Bess Maxwell was also cited as a reason not to close the school. An elder with the Hmong community said the phrase was the result of a misunderstanding, possibly as a result of a language barrier and declined to comment further.

Following the public's response, Olson apologized to members of the Hmong community.

"I greatly value the Hmong community," he said. "I have the greatest respect (for them) and I apologize for any misconceived or misdirected comments. There's no place for that in Del Norte schools."

Since closing an elementary school appears to be off the table, district officials will likely focus on increasing student attendance and curtailing the number of worker compensation claims it receives, Olson said. Student attendance is about 94 percent on an average day when it should be 97 percent, he said, and that results in an annual loss of about $600,000.

The district also paid about $1.5 million last year in worker compensation fees, Olson said. In comparison, Eureka City Schools, which is about the same size, paid $400,000 last year, he said. Most of the claims have been the result of employees falling, as well as muscle strains, Olson said.

"We're really working on educating our work force," he said. "We need to reduce the frequency of the workman's compensation claims and reduce the severity of those claims."

Olson asked the School Board to consider closing an elementary school in February after he compared Del Norte's student enrollment to that of Humboldt, Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Average enrollment at those schools was about 394 students. In Crescent City, only Mary Peacock with 384 students approached that average, he said.

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