CAMDEN — Concerns about bus ride times, pre-kindergarten arrangements, and whether other options should be pursued are among issues raised by parents and community members about the proposed closing of Annsville Elementary School.
Comments and questions from numerous speakers were heard Monday night at a special Board of Education meeting for interim school district Superintendent Jeffrey K. Bryant’s presentation on his proposed school closing.
About 120 people including parents, teachers and district representatives attended the approximately 90-minute session at the Camden High School auditorium. The board is scheduled to vote on Bryant’s recommendation at its March 13 meeting. If approved, the school closing would take effect at the end of the current 2017-18 school year.
“I thank you all for coming and sharing your thoughts and concerns,” Bryant told the audience at the end of the session. “We will take your comments...reflect on and review them.”
Byrant began the meeting by outlining reasons for the proposal:
• The Camden district’s declining overall student enrollment, which totaled 2,123 in September compared to 2,937 in 2001. The Annsville school, at 9374 Main St. in Taberg, currently has about 156 students in pre-K to grade 4.
• State financial aid that has not increased at sufficient levels.
• Increasing usage of the district’s fund balance/savings in recent years, which Bryant said would soon place the district in fiscal stress if continued. The district’s unappropriated fund balance has shrunk to $5 million, compared to $15 million five years ago, Assistant Superintendent for Business Karl Keil Jr. said afterward.
• A $1.5 million gap between expenditures and revenues in the district’s upcoming 2018-19 budget, inclusive of a 2 percent tax levy increase. Closing the Annsville school, coupled with some upcoming staff retirements including the school’s principal, would save slightly over $800,000, said Bryant.
Under the proposal, all of the Annsville school’s estimated 138 K-4 students plus teachers would move to Camden Elementary School, whose K-4 enrollment would rise to 477. The Annsville and Camden schools’ pre-K students would be reassigned to McConnellsville Elementary School; they would be picked up at their homes and bused to Camden Elementary School, from where they would ride a shuttle bus to McConnellsville school. Currently, the longest bus ride for students to Annsville school is about 47 minutes, said Bryant. Bus routes would be recalibrated, and the goal is “not any child on a bus longer than 50 minutes,” he noted.
Among audience reactions:
• Some speakers said a 50-minute bus ride is a long time for elementary students, and others doubted whether rides could be kept within that length. An Annsville school parent said her daughter’s ride takes “usually a good hour.”
• Pre-K children would “lose time in the classroom” by having to use a shuttle bus to McConnellville school, one speaker said. Others expressed fears that the pre-K program participation would decline due to overall bus ride concerns.Bryant responded that the shuttle bus “should be loaded pretty darn close to when students unload” after they arrive on other buses at Camden school.
• Future concerns about “children overcrowded in the hallway” at Camden school as a result of the plan were mentioned. Bryant said there is “plenty of space” at Camden school. His presentation noted that its enrollment in 2013-14 totaled 477, the same as the 2018-19 projection.
• Some speakers asked about the consequences if Annsville school remained open. Bryant responded that some academic programs would “be in jeopardy of being eliminated.” There also “will be layoffs,” he added.
• Other speakers asked “why not consider redistricting” students at Camden and McConnellsville schools, and about cost comparisons for a closing of McConnellsville school.
Bryant said McConnellsville school “has more space than Annsville,” which was needed; the 2018-19 projected McConnellsville enrollment would be 317 in pre-K to grade 4, including 281 attending at one time based on pre-K half-day programs.
For the Annsville school, “we looked at keeping students and teachers together” by sending all to Camden school after the closing and to “not divide them up,” said Bryant.
Another speaker supported that effort, preferring it to the district’s closing of North Bay Elementary School at end of 2013-14 in which students and teachers were “all separated.”
• An Annsville school teacher drew applause after urging Bryant to “make sure you’ve really taken time and thought this through,” including whether students’ needs would be handled as well as they currently are at Annsville. An Annsville parent also praised the school community’s involvement in events and fundraising, expressing concerns about what would happen to that.
Near the end of the session, school board President Brandie Collins, who is a Camden Elementary School parent, praised that school’s staff and said Annsville students would be openly welcomed if the plan is approved.
Bryant’s presentation acknowledged the Annsville school closing recommendation “is a difficult one.” But based on enrollment declines, state aid concerns and projected retirements, “this would be an appropriate and prudent time....”