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MACCRAY debates closing junior high building

CLARA CITY -- For the MACCRAY School District, having a separate junior high building may be a "luxury" the district can no longer afford.

It's possible the School Board could decide in March to close the district's junior high building in Clara City and move classes to the nearby senior high school.

"You never like to close a building," said board Chairman Tim Smith this week. "If it was the only building in a town, it would be a lot tougher. ... In this case, it's not quite as traumatic."

Still, some concerns about the possible move were raised two weeks ago at a community meeting about it. Parents and others are concerned about seventh-graders going to school with 12th-graders and about what will become of the building and its equipment. Another concern is the other activities in the building, including pre-school programs and an alternative high school.

Superintendent Greg Schmidt said he and his administrative team are working to find answers to questions that came up during the public meeting.

Dwindling numbers

"It's nice to have a junior high building, but it's kind of a luxury" given the district's circumstances, Smith said.

The senior high has room for all the students in grades 7-12. That wasn't always the case, but MACCRAY, like other rural schools, has been losing students steadily in recent years.

The district has lost 250 students in the past seven years, shrinking from about 1,000 students to about 750, Schmidt said.

Right now, the junior high has about 115 students in seventh and eighth grades and about 250 students in grades 9-12.

Fewer students means the district is seeing less money coming in, since the state links most school aid to student numbers.

"We can't pretend our district's not shrinking," Schmidt said. "I think the board feels it's the right time."

Closing the school could save the district $80,000 to $100,000 in the first year, Schmidt said.

"The building's in good shape," Schmidt said. "It's just that there are costs associated with it, and there are efficiencies to be gained."

Smith estimated that the annual savings would be at least enough to pay a teacher each year.

"It's a spot where we can save money every year without cutting into programs a lot," he said. "The main thing is to try to keep the district viable."

Concerns raised

People in the district seem to be gradually getting used to the idea, Schmidt said, but they still have questions.

Schmidt said he is considering ways to make seventh-graders feel secure in a bigger school. "I think that's a legitimate concern," he said.

There are ways to keep the older and younger students from mixing too much, Schmidt said. Classroom location and having students move between classes at different times are possibilities.

Concerns about jobs and other programs are harder to address at this point. He's still looking at options, Schmidt said.

It's probably inevitable that a change like this would affect some jobs, but it's too soon to say how many or which ones, he said.

Schmidt said he urged the board to make the decision in March, so that staff members can prepare for a change. He said he wants staff members to know of the board's decision and how it affects them before April 1.

"We can do it later than that by statute, but I don't think that's fair," he added.

Making the move could be complicated, Schmidt said. Some of the furniture at the junior high is of good quality and would be moved to the senior high if the building is closed. Other equipment may not be needed.

"We have to do some downsizing at the same time," he said "When they consolidated the district, they had shop tools from three schools; well, we still have shop tools from three districts."

Student ideas

Students at the junior high already get on buses every day to eat lunch and take some classes at the senior high.

Seventh-graders in their study hall last week said they don't really like the idea of losing the junior high, but some said they could understand why things might change.

"It might save some money on gas," said Colton Berends, 12, of Maynard.

Kyra Luepke, 13, of Raymond said it might be hard for the seventh-graders next year, being new in a bigger building.

But they wouldn't be heating both buildings, added Cassandra Garvick, 13, of Maynard. "I heard it costs a lot," she said.

Cassandra said she "didn't really care" which building she went to school in next year.

But Abby Zimmer, 13, of Raymond said she thinks the senior high might feel too big for younger kids, and she wonders about where new lockers would fit.

"I like it here at the junior high," she said.

School counselor Coreen Geurts said it can be stressful for the junior high students to be shuttled back and forth between the two schools now.

"These guys feel like this is their own little world up here; it's a good stepping stone to high school having them here," she said. "But they are there part of the day anyway."

Students already know a lot of the teachers at the senior high and probably wouldn't find the transition that difficult, she said.

For staff members, it will be nice to watch the students grow up through 12th grade, Geurts said. "Once they go to the senior high, you don't see them unless you go to their events."

Geurts doesn't know how the move will affect her. "I just assume they will find the space," she said. "Like I tell the kids -- nobody's going to be sitting in the hall."