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Ringsted closing hearing draws crowd

By Staff | Apr 27, 2011

The Armstrong-Ringsted Board of Education Monday night listened to public comments from Ringsted patrons about the possible closing of Ringsted Elementary. From left are Jen Von Bank, Jim Boyer, Karen Thackery, Superintendent Randy Collins, board president Rod Foster and Erin Rogers, board secretary. EDN photo by Michael Tidemann

RINGSTED – No one in a fairly large crowd at Ringsted Tuesday night strongly opposed closing Ringsted Elementary within the next two years. However, how the school would be closed, and in what manner, seemed up for grabs.

Armstrong-Ringsted Superintendent Randy Collins opened the public hearing in the Ringsted Elementary gym by drawing a picture of a district beset by falling revenues and increasing expenses, an all-too-familiar scenario for smaller school districts throughout Iowa and the Midwest.

Collins said declining enrollment, phasing out of the budget guarantee and cuts from the state in Phase I, ATB cuts and zero percent allowable growth come at a time when the district is $218,000 ahead in expenditures from last year, expenses he attributed to increased fuel and insurance costs and other expenses.

With personnel comprising 80 percent of the district budget, Collins said the board hopes to reduce personnel cost through retirements and resignations. Another proposal by Collins – and the reason Tuesday night’s meeting was held in Ringsted – is to close Ringsted Elementary over the next two years.

Collins noted in A-R’s first year of consolidation, in 1979, the district had 687 students. That compares with 303 now. And the district still has the same number of buildings, despite losing 384 students since the two districts consolidated and 75 over the last six years alone.

Collins projected a savings of $143,871 a year by closing the building.

Collins said, “26 months from now we’ll be in the red. And that’s not a pleasant feeling.” If the district stayed in the red for two years, the state would close it down, he said.

“The school is the heartbeat of the community. I’m not taking that lightly,” Collins said.

He suggested that third and fourth grades be moved to Armstrong next year, with prekindergarten through second the following year. He noted fourth grade was moved to Ringsted from Armstrong last year.

Collins’ second recommendation was to discuss closing the Ringsted building, moving fourth grade next year and making a final decision based on future developments.

A big key to those developments could hinge on the findings of a consultant hired by A-R, North Kossuth and Sentral school districts to study consolidation which would require approval of voters in all three districts.

“We can’t gamble on that,” Collins said. And, he said he was proposing a two-year plan to give the public time to ask questions and make suggestions. He said allowing two years to move students from Ringsted to Armstrong would also let the board and administration act more thoughtfully and focus on what’s best for students. He said moving third and fourth grades next year would reduce costs $10,000-$20,000, much of that transportation.

Collins addressed a number of audience questions:

n Fourth grade was moved to Ringsted this year to give students an extra year to catch up and due to building renovation in Armstrong.

n Addressing a question on the readiness of third and fourth grades to move to Armstrong next year, said Collins, “If it looks like it’s bad for kids, you’ll see me back off.” However, if the board directs him to pursue the possibility or moving those two grades to Armstrong, he would look into it.

n Collins said third and fourth grades could be accommodated immediately, with two empty classrooms in Armstrong. Other possibilities would be converting the administration room to a classroom and moving the weight room.

n Another concern was combining younger and older children. “Part of the challenge might be to look at the traffic flow,” Collins said, suggesting the possibility of an elementary wing.

n Dale Jensen, who served on the Ringsted School Board since the 1960s and for one year on the joint A-R board, said it was important for the board to be direct with district patrons. “The students are important. That’s what we looked at right then,” Jensen said. He asked what the issue was with A-R consolidating with ELC, and Collins said North Kossuth and Sentral had requested that if A-R were considering coming together with those districts that it discontinue talks with ELC. Rod Foster, board president, said most parents preferred a North Kossuth/Sentral arrangement.

n The mother of one fourth-grader said she was grateful her student was in Ringsted this year and asked what would be gained by moving gradually to Armstrong. Collins said one shuttle could be eliminated, saving $10,000. Another savings might come from more efficient use of staff, Collins said.

n Julie Laidig, Ringsted Elementary secretary, speaking for the staff, read a letter saying savings would be minimal. She said all grades at Ringsted use guided reading programs and that splitting elementary students between the two buildings would divide sources. She also said there was no playground equipment at Armstrong. She asked also that students be kept together as a unit.

n Regarding a consolidation timeline with North Kossuth and Sentral, Collins said a meeting was scheduled with the consultant May 23. “In my opinion, that’s going to drive things,” he said. “It isn’t a slam dunk that the three districts are going to come together.”

n A number of suggestions came from the audience for saving money, including a pay freeze or reduction in force. Collins said his sharing his duties with Graettinger-Terril brought in $80,000 in supplemental weighting to A-R last year.

n One patron was concerned about students enrolling outside the district. Collins said A-R had a net gain of 11 students with open enrollment. “I’ve heard from parents in Bancroft it’s expensive,” board member Jen Von Bank said of their sending their children to Algona.

n Another patron was concerned about a negative impact of closing Ringsted Elementary – more empty houses resulting in reduced property taxes. Collins said there may be a way to use the building to spur economic development.

Von Bank acknowledged the district needed to plan for a worst-case scenario if A-R doesn’t consolidate with North Kossuth and Sentral. She questioned if it was worth moving two grades to Armstrong to save $20,000.

“I say we move them all now if we can or we wait,” Von Bank said.