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Questions abundant at meeting on Sacred Heart school closure

SACRED HEART -- There were more questions than comments when the Renville County West School District conducted a public hearing Tuesday evening on closing the elementary school buildings in Sacred Heart.

The district is proposing to consolidate into a single, K-12 campus in Renville at the start of the new school year.

Many in the somber-faced crowd of 75 or so residents who gathered in the Sacred Heart gym asked: "Why the rush?''

"I just think we're not ready,'' said Barb Miller, one of many to raise the question about the move's timing.

"We have to make some difficult decisions,'' said Superintendent Lance Bagstad.

At a minimum, the district needs to trim next year's budget by $280,000 to avoid deficit spending, he said.

The move to a K-12 central campus will provide cost savings of $325,000 to the district while keeping all of the academic offerings intact, Bagstad told the audience.

Other options were considered, including the possibility of closing just a portion of the elementary school facility and keeping grades five and six in Sacred Heart.

The option fell short of saving the money needed, and as a result, it would lead to cuts in the curriculum offered, Bagstad and school board members said.

School board members said a four-day school week would not provide the savings needed either, and they expressed concerns about how it might affect academic performance.

The district's single-campus proposal aims to save funds by reducing the heating and building maintenance costs for the Sacred Heart facilities and the transportation costs associated with a two-campus system. It also includes staff cuts. School board members at their meeting Monday will consider placing five teachers on unrequested leaves of absences.

Questions from residents ranged from what the move to one campus would mean for athletics to how elementary and high school students would be segregated.

Parents of next year's sixth-graders expressed special concerns. The class will be reduced to one section next year with enrollment expected at just over 30 students. Other classes will remain under a two-section format.

Athletic schedules will be difficult, acknowledged Jeff Wilson, high school principal and athletic director. There will be practices before school at 6:30 a.m., and two sets of practices after school. Varsity athletes will have to wait from the end of school at 3:10 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. for their practices to start.

Wilson said the school is also exploring the possibility of pairing some sports with neighboring districts, such as wrestling with MACCRAY. The mats for wrestling fit wall-to-wall in the small gym in Renville, where practices would be held. Wrestlers will need to roll up the mats every day, and wall mats would need to be hung for competitions.

Bagstad said the upper and lower grades will be separated in the Renville facilities, with the high school students on the upper floor. The district will take advantage of the mentoring opportunities provided by the mix of different-aged students, but always in a structured format, he said.

The hearing opened with an invitation for comments from the public, but only four people took advantage of it. Mark Erickson urged board members to develop a written and clear plan for the move to win the confidence and support of residents.

He also warned board members that the support is needed if voters are to renew the district's $800-per-pupil levy by 2010. If it fails, he said, "we would not have a school left.''

Others warned board members that the closing of the Sacred Heart school would lead parents to use open enrollment to send their children to school in the towns where they work.

There were pointed questions too, including one that asked whether the closing of the Sacred Heart buildings was "punishment'' for the voters' rejection of plans to build a new K-12 facility.

Not so, was the response of school board chairman Darin Bratsch. "It is a direct result of the state giving schools zeros for funding,'' Bratsch said of the single-campus proposal.

Board members have not set a deadline to decide whether or not to consolidate into a K-12 system. They previously awarded a project to install sprinklers in the Renville facilities to meet a fire marshal's order if the buildings are to house both elementary and upper grades.