Residents share concerns at forum

BARAGA – A handful of Baraga Area Schools district residents shared strong feelings about the K-2 Pelkie Elementary School at a Thursday forum held to discuss cost-cutting options for the district.

It was third forum held to discuss two proposals: instituting multi-grade classrooms to cut staff while maintaining optimal class sizes, and closing Pelkie Elementary, which last year housed five K-2 classes. Baraga’s school board could take action on either or both of the proposals at its June 23 budget meeting.

“I have a grandchild out there who went from a very shy child to outgoing and academically successful,” Pelkie resident Gayle Isaacson said of the K-2 elementary. “What the Baraga Schools have out there is so unique, so wonderful, it sets the tone for their academic career. … I truly pray that it’s a last resort to bring those kids in.”

At the forum, district Superintendent Jennifer Lynn said cost-cutting was necessary mainly because of declining enrollment. From fall of 2011 to this spring, she said, enrollment fell from 505 to 452 students, costing the district about $380,000 per year in government funding. An outside study showed that trend is likely to continue, she said, with enrollment predicted to range from flat to a loss of about 30 students in each of the next two years.

The withholding of federal impact aid due to congressional budget battles contributes to the challenging economic picture, Lynn added. Without cost-cutting, next year’s expenditures are projected to be about $5.2 million, meaning the district would run nearly $240,000 in the red.

Lynn said closing Pelkie Elementary would eliminate about $119,000 in costs between utilities, support staff and bus fuel, though a portion of those costs would be shifted to other district budgets.

In response to audience questions, she said there were still some unanswered questions regarding what the district would do with the building, which had a new geothermal heating system and other energy improvements installed just three years ago. She said consultants were still considering whether the historic school would be legally allowed to reopen without major renovations.

“To me it seems like there are too many unanswered questions at this point to do it before next year,” said Isaacson.

Marge Krumm, a Pelkie resident, said the district should also consider the Pelkie School’s role in the community.

“It’s kind of a community center for the people in Pelkie,” she said, citing adult volleyball and other activities. “It’s a neutral meeting place.”

School Board Vice President William Jondreau, a Baraga alumnus, didn’t indicate whether he’d made his mind up about the cuts. Jondreau said he’d gone to Pelkie as a child and appreciated the good environment, but as a board member he had to also “look at the enrollment and what’s best for the district.”

Lynn said using multi-grade classrooms to equalize the number of students in classrooms is a popular strategy among small districts. She said she had taught in multi-grade classrooms and chosen multi-grade situations for her own daughters. Research, she said, tended to be neutral.

“It doesn’t improve student achievement, but it doesn’t reduce student achievement either,” she said, adding that studies showed multi-grade classrooms improved social-emotional growth.

Lynn said the multi-grade classrooms would allow for the elimination of two teachers while maintaining optimal class sizes, saving between $113,000 and $182,000.

Several of those in attendance said they had been in mixed-grade classes and were happy with the situation, but Jondreau said he’d received several calls from parents who didn’t like the idea. Fellow board member Gale Eilola also had reservations.

“We tried multi-grade before and it was a big train wreck,” he said. “People were against it.”

Parents and other attendees at the forums were surveyed on the strategies and surveys and Lynn’s PowerPoint will also be available on the district’s website, baragaschools.org, by today. The school board will consider those surveys as they decide how to move forward.

The board is also looking for a new grades 3-12 principal for next school year. Jonathan Young is expected to resign at the June 23 board meeting to pursue another opportunity.