Pine River Will Close

By a 7-2 vote last Wednesday, the Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education voted to reaffirm its intentions to close Pine River Elementary School and move the district’s Head Start/Early Childhood program into the building.
Over 100 parents and students of both Pine River and other area elementary schools who will see their children bused to different schools this fall under a redistricting plan crammed into the meeting room to speak against the plan. Many more spilled out into the hallways of the Central Office building along with a sizeable contingent of the district’s teachers. The proceedings were piped into the hallway on speakers so those outside the room could hear what was being said inside.
Eight speakers, mostly associated with Pine River, addressed the board during the public comment period at the start of the meeting.
Lara Millis, the first speaker said that closing an elementary school to close the budget shortfall was an easy decision because the parents of children this age are busy with work, volunteering at the school and too busy to follow what the board was doing. She said that if the board went ahead with its plan to close Pine River, it would “undo all the work that Dr. (Lisa) Snyder did to foster trust and openness between residents and the board.”
Pine River Town Chairman Bill Zeitz said the decision to go ahead with the closure of the school despite the outcry from parents of all the elementary schools was a sign of its disconnect.
“I think it is high time that this board realize you are the elected representatives of these people,” Zeitz said. “Let’s realign your thinking; keep Pine River open, listen to the voice of the people.”
Linda Yingling said that it would be “total nonsense” to tear up a whole town to close one school.
“I think it would be real nice if most board members would pay attention (while we spoke),” she added at the end of her comments. “That would be real respectful.”
The public comments were concluded by three Pine River students who said that they had made many friendships while attending the school, friendships that would be torn asunder by the redistricting.
When the board got down to discussing the plan to close Pine River, newly elected member Kelly Collins questioned if the decision was made with enough notice and input from the parents of students at the school saying the administration made a rush to judgment on the recommendation to consolidate the elementary schools in town. He also wanted to see concrete numbers and a cost benefit analysis of the plan.
“You put it correctly when you said it was our plan,” Collins said. “This is their (gesturing to the audience) plan, too.”
He then made a motion to postpone closing Pine River Elementary for one year so that all sides of the issue could be examined completely by the board and the savings better demonstrated to the board and public. Loretta Baughan seconded the motion opening the floor for discussion among the board members.
Brad Kanitz said the board discussed all possible options at a retreat last summer when they started preliminary work on the 2012-13 budget. He said that the board modified the administration’s original proposal to close both rural elementary schools, opting instead to continue the work of creating a joint charter school at Maple Grove Elementary with the Marathon School District. That vote was taken in January, showing that the board was aware of the proposal to close Pine River.
“There is no new information – other than opinion – to show that we are going down the wrong path,” Kanitz said.
Collins replied that the savings in closing the school should be obvious, but the administration can’t show what they would be.
“You can’t justify this for savings if there is no savings,” Collins said.
Meredith Prebeg said that keeping Pine River Elementary open was a good use of the savings when the district should be concentrating on retaining teachers and bolstering areas of instruction where standardized test scores show MAPS students are struggling.
Gene Bondioli said that the current Head Start/Early Childhood facility was not the best for that purpose, citing the dangerous parking lot at the building when buses are loading/unloading. He added that when Scott and Midway schools closed, there were initial protests from the parents but little was heard after the schools closed.
“The kids adjust very quickly,” Bondioli said.
“At some point in time, you have to move forward,” said Jen Seliger. “We have voted on this twice.”
Brad Geiss agreed with Bondioli that using the Pine River building for the HS/EC program was the best use of the building. He said that the district has gotten as much cost concessions as it could from the three unions representing district teachers, secretaries and custodians.
“We can’t keep taking it from the teachers, they’ve been patient,” Geiss said to thunderous applause from the teachers in the hallways.
Baughan said that the district’s new Bridges Virtual Academy charter school with the potential of adding 400 new students to MAPS enrollment next year would provide more than enough money to keep Pine River open as an elementary school.
“That’s our budget (problem) solved,” she said. “We do not need to close Pine River.”
She added that increasing elementary class sizes to 28-30 students would not be in the best interests of the students.
“Having the decision thrust on us in two weeks did not allow adequate time to study alternatives,” Baughan said. “That’s not how government of any kind should work.
“What is the cost of the loss of trust in us as a board by the community? That would be priceless,” she added.
During a roll call vote on Collins’ motion to delay the closure one year failed by a 2-7 margin with Baughan and Collins casting the lone aye votes. The failure of the motion meant that the plans to close the school at the end of this school year will continue.
Later, the board approved spending up to $300,000 to put a new roof on the building, a project that had been delayed for six years due to the uncertainty of the building remaining in use by the district. This was part of the proposed 2012-13 maintenance projects the board voted on, along with projects that would be funded by an energy efficiency projects of a total of up to $369,000 that would be paid for by a separate tax levy allowed by the legislature. That passed 7-2 with Baughan and Collins casting the votes against.
The board approved a recommendation 9-0 to have Somerville, Inc. prepare estimates and documents needed to bid out the second and third phases of the remodeling of Pine River to make it more suitable for use by HS/EC and make it more energy efficient.

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