The suggestion of closing two elementary schools in La Crosse is not popular with people who spoke at a school district hearing Wednesday.
More than 30 people signed up to comment on school closing plans put together by what’s been named the Facility Advisory Committee. It came two days after only two spoke at the virtual public session hosted by the district.
Speakers on Wednesday at the Hogan Administrative Center generally defended their own neighborhood schools targeted for potential closure, from among Hintgen, Emerson, Spence and North Woods.
Hintgen principal Amy Oliver called on the committee to consider the space needs of all the schools.
“I encourage you to ensure that the buildings you choose to keep open are able to meet the capacity of our students, both in theory and reality,” Oliver said.
Emily Juno, a Hintgen teacher, said her school is a model of how well local schools should work.
“Why is it being recommended to disperse students and staff who benefit from all of the progress made in our school’s educational equity approach?” Juno asked. “Instead, we should be bringing students and staff into our buildings so they can benefit from our strong systems that are already in place.”
Daniel Schneider told the committee that his kids went to Emerson years ago, but he thinks that building has now served its purpose.
“You are not gonna get away with leaving Emerson open,” Schneider said. “We will have a referendum on this, unless you get your heads together and realize that the schools that should stay open, should stay open, and Emerson’s time is over.”
Several speakers said older schools like Emerson and Spence, which have high maintenance costs in the millions of dollars, should be closed before newer schools like North Woods are shut down.
While the capital improvements from the FAC report for Spence ($3.4 million) and Emerson ($2.9 million) are more than Hintgen ($1 million) and North Woods ($751,000), other costs for the latter two schools — such as a need for increased bussing — offset the differences.
Kevin Hundt had direct criticism for Superintendent Aaron Engel, who responded by saying speakers should not make personal comments about school officials.
Hundt baselessly claimed that Engel “has zero credibility or trust among the community,” and argued that the current school closing discussion was a form of “revenge” for the defeat of a high school building referendum last year.
The referendum to build a new high school at a cost of $194.7 million was voted down by a 70 percent margin. That plan would have moved middle school students to the remaining high schools and consolidated the elementary students to the middle schools.
With the referendum failing, the district moved on from the one high school model to try and consolidate buildings, by first closing Lincoln Middle School earlier this year.
That vote by the school board left some feeling like there was a lack of transparency in the plan.
So, as the district moved ahead with consolidation, it formed the Facility Advisory Committee, which has held meetings open to the public for the past eight months. The final report by the FAC was released earlier this month, leading to this week’s public comment sessions.
The next step in the process, according to Superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel, who discussed the process on La Crosse Talk PM, will be reviewing the district’s finances at the bi-weekly school board meeting Monday, and the board could make a decision on the FAC’s recommendation to close North Woods and Hintgen in January.
The reasoning behind the district’s consolidation plans — that have been in discussion for about three years, if not decades — hovers around declining enrollment, deficit budgets and aging buildings.
In last eight years, the district has lost 719 students in elementary schools alone.
Engel told WIZM his year, the district is down 174 students, which amounts to about $1.3 million lost — the state allocates about $11,000 per student.
La Crosse is also graduating 460 students, but bringing in around 380. And, 500 students have moved out of the district, while 300 have moved in.