The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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December 11, 2013

Southeast Kansas school board votes to close McCune school

CHEROKEE, Kan. — In a unanimous vote Wednesday night, the remaining four members of the Southeast of Cherokee School Board sealed their decision to close McCune Attendance Center, one of five possible options for reorganization of USD 247.

Starting next year, the existing school in Weir will operate as the district’s only pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade attendance center. It will be renamed Southeast Grade School. Fifth- through eighth-grade students will attend school at the existing building in Cherokee, which will be renamed Southeast Middle School. Southeast High School in Cherokee will remain the same.

The renaming is in an effort to unite the district, said Superintendent Glenn Fortmayer.

The board has grappled with the decision to reorganize for months, prompted by the challenges of declining enrollment, poor cash reserves and state funding cuts.

The district’s 660 students are spread out across 326 square miles of mostly farmland. The district includes the towns of Weir, population 679; McCune, population 405; and West Mineral, population 185. The high school and junior high school are in Cherokee, which has a population of 716.

The average property valuation in the school district is $28,000 — the lowest of any district in the state. The district’s cash reserves are $300,000 to $500,000 in a given year, at a time when some districts measure their reserves in the millions.

The district has lost 186 students since 2004, and it is poised to continue that trend when the largest classes, now at the junior high level and above, graduate. The preschool and kindergarten classes are the smallest in many years.

The district has almost $1 million less in its general fund than it did in 2008, and it has the lowest cash balance among 10 area school districts.

The issue of whether to reorganize the district has not been without controversy among the patrons in each town.

The controversy came to a head at a November public hearing for residents’ input. Three board members resigned before the hearing, and the remaining four members approved moving ahead with the closure of the McCune school, drawing the ire of many in attendance.

Fortmayer on Wednesday provided a detailed look at the financial elements involved with each of the five options, and what each would mean in terms of savings, losses and efficiency of resources.

Closing the McCune school will mean an estimated annual savings of $482,000 — the most of all the options — as well as a more efficient use of resources, increased teacher collaboration, and the least number of students (39) requiring busing, he said.

That option outweighed the other options, which ranged from annual savings of $90,000 to $131,000, board members noted, and would have in some instances meant busing larger numbers of students to McCune.

An option proposed by a group of parents to sell the McCune school and land to the neighboring Oswego School District was rejected by the Oswego board, a position explained in detail in a letter by Oswego Superintendent Mark LaTurner and read aloud by Fortmayer.

Several residents pleaded with the board to reconsider and keep the McCune school open.

McCune City Clerk Anita McGown spoke representing the City Council, which in October voted to donate to the district the cost of the monthly utility bills.

“You will be putting our very young children on unfamiliar buses very early in the morning to travel several miles on a busy highway to an inadequate facility,” McGown said. “Please keep our school open and our heart beating.”

Others, although visibly emotional about the prospect of the McCune school closing, said they wanted what was best for the students and the district as a whole.

“Option 3 (the chosen option) provides the absolute best education possible for all of our children,” said Denise Burns, a district employee for 17 years, in tearful testimony. “The thing I love the most is that they will all be together and would go through this journey with their friends all around them.”

Chris Wilson, the parent of three children in the district, said the controversy could have been avoided years ago if a single campus had been built. He said that if the district had the capacity to do so, it should also close the Weir campus and invest all of its dollars into a single location.

Hearing format

WEDNESDAY NIGHT’S MEETING also was a public hearing, giving residents a final chance to make three-minute statements before the board’s final vote.

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