COSMOS -- The ACGC School Board was peppered with question after question Monday by Cosmos residents who are facing the possibility that their community may no longer have an elementary school.
With declining enrollment and a tight budget, the Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School Board is considering moving the kindergarten through fourth-grade students who now attend ACGC South in Cosmos to ACGC North in Atwater.
At a minimum, the move would save the district $74,000, said Business Manager Dan Tait, who said he used "very conservative" figures.
The proposed "restructuring" would not mean closing the building. The district would continue to lease classrooms to an autism program housed there, which generates revenue for ACGC.
But taking the youngest children out of their hometown school was clearly a painful prospect for the nearly 90 residents who attended the Cosmos meeting.
Many said they would send their children to the Litchfield, Hutchinson or Hector elementary schools rather than go to Atwater, in essence gutting the ACGC "community."
LeeAnn Melberg said she currently utilizes open enrollment to send her children into ACGC so that they can attend the Cosmos elementary school, which she praised for its small class sizes, caring staff and high test scores.
The thought of ending the elementary program in Cosmos "breaks my heart," she said, adding that she would not send her children to Atwater.
Open enrollment is the state statute that allows public school students to apply to attend a school outside of their district of residence.
Luella Nelson said perhaps students from Atwater should be bused to Cosmos. "The road goes both ways," she said to loud cheers and applause.
Several people said that when the three communities consolidated, Cosmos was the only one that was financially sound and that money was used to help out the district. Now Cosmos is being left out, they said.
Heidi Johnson said many parents who live in Cosmos work in Hutchinson. That would make a long drive for people who need to pick up a sick child in Atwater in the middle of the day. In comments made after the meeting, Johnson said she would consider home-schooling her 4-year-old next year rather than putting the child on a bus to Atwater.
"How much revenue do you anticipate losing by closing South," asked Becky Youngblom, adding that many families would use open enrollment to send students to other districts, which would reduce ACGC's state aid per student.
The school board realizes some students might leave ACGC if the elementary program ends at Cosmos, said Chairwoman Judy Raske in a later interview.
"We may potentially lose kids. I'm not going to sit here and lie about that."
But Raske said ACGC is already losing students. Because of open enrollment, the district has a net loss of about 85 students.
A survey conducted in 2007 indicated students from the Grove City area who were designated to attend ACGC South were leaving the district because they didn't want to go to Cosmos, said Raske.
A decision was made then to allow those kids to attend Atwater instead of Cosmos in order to keep them in the district, she said.
Now the reverse could happen and the district could lose families if elementary students are sent to Atwater instead of Cosmos.
ACGC houses all fifth- through 12th-grade students at the Junior/Senior High School in Grove City.
ACGC North currently has 251 elementary students. ACGC South has 83 students.
Based on research conducted by staff, the low student numbers make it about twice as expensive to educate kids in Cosmos as it does in Atwater. The board was also told that based on a fire marshal's review, all the district's K-4 students would fit in the Atwater school. A preliminary transportation plan would get Cosmos students to Atwater in an hour, but the costs were unknown.
This year ACGC implemented a four-day school week to save money. Joe Schumacher, of Cosmos, said closing ACGC South would be another tough hit. "We're taking two steps in the wrong direction. It doesn't make sense to me."
With a $5 billion state deficit and little chance for new state dollars, Raske said school districts have to find ways to cut costs.
As a graduate of the original Cosmos School District with a long family history of serving on the school board, Raske is painfully aware of the turmoil the proposal is causing her community.
"It's a sensitive subject and an emotional one, especially for the people here in this area. I understand it," said Raske, who struggled to keep her own emotions in check. "It is by far the hardest decision I will have to make as a board member."
The board will hold a public meeting at 7 p.m. on Dec. 7 at the Cosmos elementary school to discuss the proposal. A decision is expected to be made at the board's Dec. 20 meeting.