Unhappy family members and students were among those who voiced concerns Tuesday night at Franklin Elementary School during a town hall-esque meeting that followed a discussion about the school being closed.
The closures had been suggested at a recent Unified School District 475 Board of Education meeting after it came to light that the district would not qualify for heavy impact aid because it spends too much money per pupil to earn that federal funding.
The district needs to reduce the amount it spends on pupils across the district by almost $3 million in order to qualify for the aid, which goes to districts such as USD 475 that have a high military population among the student body.
These funds can be used for infrastructure improvements and played a part in the construction of the new Junction City High School. Superintendent Reginald Eggleston and district COO David Wild were among those who addressed the emotional crowd Tuesday evening. They suggested the funding could one day be used to build a new elementary school in the district. Plans for the new elementary school would be part of a 10 year plan.
Parents, guardians and children expressed their displeasure over the possible closure of their school, some of them tearfully.
Some of of the families present said they and their parents before them had attended Franklin Elementary School, the building of which is more than 100 years old.
Concerns were voiced over sending students to other schools in the district, worries about how children who currently walk to school will be able to continue this at schools that are farther away than Franklin, and how children might feel about changing schools.
Michelle McLean, mother to a six-year-old Franklin student, spoke up against closing Franklin, citing social distancing and larger class sizes which a school closure would create. She said she believed her daughter would be “devastated” if the school closed and she worried about students’ health.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and it is supposed to re-escalate during the school year,” she said.
McLean said she worried about the students’ mental health and what such a change would cause for them mentally.
“We have a community here that has been suffering for the last few months because of this disease that’s going around and our children are begging for normalcy,” she said. “They are begging for the opportunity to return to their friends to feel like normal again, and to return to their teachers in their classrooms who they’ve missed. And if you didn’t know by watching them interact on their tablets, that those were the only moments that they felt connected to something normal again. We need to give them that opportunity to cope. We need to give parents the opportunity to cope ... If we are going to close a school, we need a plan, a great deal of time and a full understanding of what it looks like and why.”
McLean said talk of closing the school was sprung upon them at a time when there were already too many unknowns. Now, she said, children and teachers don’t know where they’ll be in the next two months.
“It’s not enough time. It needs to slow down,” she said. “We need to get facts and we need to get real answers before we do anything.”
While McLean was unhappy at the end of the meeting, she said she believed her concerns had been heard by the district.
“I feel like everything was heard,” she said. “They may not have been addressed or answered, because they don;t have answers — and that’s my biggest issue — but I feel like we were heard. Strong emotions, well-educated, well-read thoughts, every angle that was presented was heard and that’s important.”
Brandy Zentz, who serves as guardian for her niece, said her niece had attended Franklin for the past six years. Her niece has graduated, but she was still concerned over the possibility of a closure.
“It has been awesome,” she said, her voice cracking. “When she first started school, she wouldn’t even talk to anybody. The teachers really helped her.”
Zentz said she sat by the door the first day of school at Franklin waiting for the teacher to call, but the call never came. Her niece did fine in school, she said. After six years, Zentz said her niece has gone from utterly silent to a talkative, normal child, something she chalks up to the teachers at Franklin.
“She talks to everybody that she knows from this building,” Zentz said. “She’s one of those kids that when there was no school, she would cry. This COVID thing has been horrible for her, because she misses the interactions with the teachers.”
Zentz feels closing the school would have a detrimental impact on students.
“You’re talking about kids that thrive in this school up and just all of the sudden moving them to another school,” she said.
She was concerned about social distancing in larger classrooms.
“If they get to open for school in August, they have to maintain the six feet,” Zentz said. “How are they going to do that by adding, say, five or six more kids to a classroom? I mean, it’s already going to be hard the way it is.”
Zentz also disagreed that other schools were within walking distance with the nearest schools being Sheridan and Washington Elementary Schools.
She said she hoped the school officials who attended Tuesday night’s meeting took families’ concerns seriously.
Parent Nicole Madden who hopes to send her son to kindergarten at Franklin and whose daughter graduated from the school in May 2020 said she worried the district was thinking about money over the wellbeing of students.
“I don’t think it’s they’re thinking of the kids. I think they’re thinking of money first, which isn’t a good option. There’s other ways out there,” Madden said.
She did not feel the concerns of parents and guardians were heard during the Tuesday meeting.
“I kind of felt like they tried as best as they could,” Madden said. “But we’re kind of talking to a wall. I think (the families) really don’t have any power. And I think it’s just kind of like a political game like anything else. So it’s just sitting in waiting. I’m hoping they would actually listen to people. But I feel like it’s a rushed thing right now. And they’re really not listening.”
The Board of Education will be holding two public hearings to receive public comments regarding the potential closure of Franklin and Grandview Elementaries. These meetings will be held at each respective school, and board members will listen to comments from the public regarding the impact of closing either school.
The hearing schedule is as follows:
July 13 at 6:30 p.m. at Franklin Elementary School
July 14 at 6:30 p.m. at Grandview Elementary School
The health department has placed limits on mass gatherings restricting them to no more than 50 people which limits the number of community members who can attend these hearings in person. Anyone who can’t attend is welcome to email comments to be read out loud during the hearings to PublicHearing@USD475.org. People who do this are asked to note which school hearing they would like their message shared at in the subject line of the email.
Speakers will be limited to three minutes each to ensure everyone has a chance to share comments.
Members of the public who choose to attend are asked to wear masks.
The BOE will hold a special meeting July 16 at 5:30 p.m., the Mary E. Devin Center where board members will discuss and potentially vote on the school closing issue.
Both hearings and the special meeting will be live streamed to the district’s social media pages.