More than 150 in attendance at public forum to discuss Waterville Elementary

by Brianne Eilers

A public forum was held Monday evening, November 13 in the Waukon High School Auditorium to give the public a chance to ask questions and voice their opinions and concerns regarding the future of Waterville Elementary School with the Allamakee Community School District (ACSD) Board of Directors and administrative staff fielding those questions. Copies of the informational newsletter that was mailed to constituents of the ACSD in October were made available for attendees, as well as the questions and answers that have been posted on the ACSD website.

ACSD Board President Al Rissman brought the meeting to order and went over the procedures for the public forum before opening up the floor to those who had questions and comments. Participants were asked not to repeat questions or comments and to also refrain from asking questions previously answered on the school website. Participants were given five minutes to ask their questions and make their comments. Approximately 155 people were in attendance for the forum, which lasted approximately an hour and a half.

After the meeting was opened up to the public, John Papp made the first comments in regards to personnel costs and the possibility of again having a shared principal to cut some costs. Natalie Kelly then addressed the board regarding the border for determining which families would send children to Waterville Elementary, referencing Maud Road. ACSD Transportation Director Randy Nordheim discussed Cardinal Road and Maud Road as some of the roads within that border. Bridget Weymiller asked the Board if there were a certain number of students needed to make the Waterville school viable.

Rissman stated there was "no definitive number one way or the other." He also noted that when looking at this decision, there are many factors, including attendance rates in the past, present and future.

After a brief lull, Mark VanderKolk asked what the transition would look like, should the board decide to close Waterville. Nordheim responded that from the transportation standpoint, most of the students would be able to stay on the same bus their whole trip to and from school. Currently, there are a few buses that have to switch some passengers around the Waterville area. He noted that eliminating the transfers would potentially save some time on the routes, and also noted that with the bus routes, timing is an important factor. He also noted that bus routes change every year with new students coming on and some going off the routes. The drivers try to figure out the quickest way to get students off the buses when they get to town to try and cut down on some of the time students spend on the bus.

There was a concern expressed regarding kids that live in Waterville and how they would get picked up. Nordheim noted that he hasn't figured out the exact routes yet if that would happen, but they would have about eight different bus routes that would be transporting the students who are currently attending Waterville.

Rissman furthered the discussion by saying that the Waterville teachers would move to the Waukon schools. Waterville Public Library librarian Heather Bente asked the board members if they could wait a year or two longer before making this decision and see if, with changes in politicians, State Aid would possibly increase. Board member Tim Waters said that the Board has to be conscientious of its responsibilities to all taxpayers in the school district. "Hope is not a financial strategy," he said. Waters also praised the Waterville parents, noting that "they do a lot of great things."

The next question came from Virgil Thorstenson regarding the well head and bacteria issues. ACSD Buildings and Grounds Director Bill Hennessy explained that at the trigger point they have been getting the coliforms that have caused the concern, and the State lab told the district that is where the bacteria are coming from in the drinking water. Thorstenson asked what the depth of the well is and Hennessy said it was between 392 and 398 feet.

Amy Jeglum asked board members to clarify their response to the following question from the information that was handed out to attendees: Q33: BASED ON THE LISTED NON-PERSONNEL "FIXED COSTS"  (UTILITIES, ETC.) IT WOULD APPEAR THAT GREATER EFFICIENCIES AND MORE GEOGRAPHIC COUNTY SUPPORT COULD BE GAINED BY CLOSING THE EAST ELEMENTARY BUILDING IN WAUKON AND BUSING STUDENTS TO WATERVILLE. THIS COULD HAPPEN ALONG THE LINES OF WHAT IS DONE AT EASTERN ALLAMAKEE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT AND MFL/MARMAC COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT. HAS THE BOARD LOOKED AT THIS OPTION AND IF NOT, WHY NOT? YOU CAN BE SURE THAT EASTERN ALLAMAKEE AND OTHERS ARE GOING TO BE WATCHING HOW YOU HANDLE THE USE OF FACILITIES NOT IN WAUKON, AND WHAT IT MIGHT MEAN FOR THEM IN THE LONG TERM. Answer: The Board is considering all possible options.

After being asked what the options are, board member Tom Baxter stated that at this point there are only two options: keep the school open or close it. He noted that there are many issues of concern to the district each year, and that there is more of an issue with costs than anything. He reiterated that the board members are working for everyone in the ACSD. "People in the rest of the district are looking at class sizes," he pointed out. He also noted that the board has not discussed the issue "in depth."

Board member Patty Nordheim noted that there are going to be people not in favor of busing students to Waterville as well. She also touched on the fact that, according to the numbers, the district is spending more money on students at Waterville than students in the Waukon schools. Later in the forum it was mentioned that there are people who feel that isn't fair.

Nate Gebel, a former teacher in the ACSD, noted that the district has high-quality schools. Gebel is now an instructor at NICC, but said that he remembers when he first came to the ACSD 19 years ago that Waterville Elementary was being discussed then. He also reminded everyone that ACSD is not the only school facing this challenge.

Hannah Walleser then asked what the academic benefits would be for students going from Waterville to Waukon. ACSD Superintendent Dave Herold stated that he felt the academic benefits would be that students would have access to the combined resources of both the Waterville teachers and the teachers in the Waukon schools, as well as access to NICC.

Richard Leiran addressed the board regarding the following question: Q46: I UNDERSTAND THE AFTER SCHOOL PROGRAM HAS BEEN FUNDED FOR WATERVILLE FOR NEXT YEAR. I AM NOT FAMILIAR WITH ALL THE DETAILS BUT I ASSUME, IF WATERVILLE CLOSES, HARPERS FERRY AND WATERVILLE PARENTS WILL BE REQUIRED TO DRIVE TO WAUKON TO PICK UP THEIR CHILDREN FROM EAST AND WEST IN ORDER TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE PROGRAM? Answer: That is incorrect; the After School Program for Waterville has NOT been funded for next year. As was explained in the previous question: The After School Program is funded with federal grants that are awarded every 3-5 years. The Waterville program is on year 5 of a 5-year grant this school year. We are currently writing the application for a new grant at Waterville. If we are awarded the grant and Waterville closes, the State has assured us that those funds would follow the students. If Waterville closes, the plan would be to hold the elementary After School Programs in Waukon and transportation is not provided.

Leiran's concern was that if students have to go to Waukon and parents can't pick them up, Harpers Ferry and Waterville area students could potentially be eliminated from participating in those programs. He also asked if a poll had been done to determine if Waterville Elementary students would be open-enrolled rather than sending them to Waukon.

Director of the 21st Century Grant program that funds those after school programs, Barb Winters-Kelly, stated that parents do currently provide or arrange transportation for students, due to costs. Parents would have to pick up their children in Waukon.

The question was raised about reinstating the activity bus routes, but the board did not comment on that suggestion. Baxter said that they have not done a poll on open-enrollment. He also said he hoped that they would not lose students to open-enrollment.

Jennifer Hermanson, a paraprofessional at Waterville Elementary, asked the board how the change would affect classroom paras at the Waukon schools. Superintendent Herold explained that the one-on-one paraprofessionals for special needs students would be the same and that the classroom paraprofessionals would be determined by classroom size.

A question was also asked as to why the decision has to be made at the December regular board meeting. Rissman explained that it was just the timeline the board had chosen. Later in discussion, Rissman noted that the board would have a work session and discussion and the item will be put on the December 18 board meeting agenda. He said the decision will need only a majority vote to approve whatever decision is made, not a unanimous vote.
 

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