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West Branch works to trim losses

BELOIT — Consolidation within the West Branch school district is imminent next school year, and district leaders want to make the transition smooth for students.

“The final choice should minimally impact” education, Superintendent Tim Saxton told more than 200 people at a Tuesday meeting at West Branch Middle School.

After several failed levy attempts, the board of education decided against placing another levy on the March 17 ballot. Instead, Saxton said discussions to reconfigure the district began in January.

Courtney Stryffeler, school board president, said: “We’ve found ourselves in a financial situation,” and noted that the district continually asking for levies “is not a viable option.”

A PowerPoint presentation was used to explain that the district has been in a deficit-spending mode over the last decade, and is now operating on a $700,000 deficit.

Options for reconfiguration are:

l Damascus Elementary transitions to West Branch Early Learning Center, housing preschool, kindergarten and first grade. Knox Elementary is idled. West Branch Intermediate School will have grades 2-6. West Branch Junior / Senior High will include grades 7-12. A total of $485,933.40 is saved.

l Damascus Elementary and Knox Elementary are idled. West Branch Elementary and Intermediate School will have preschool through sixth grade, while West Branch Junior / Senior High will house grades 7-12. A total of $976,121 is saved.

l Damascus Elementary will be partially idled and house the board of education offices, special services offices and technology offices. Knox Elementary is idled. West Branch Elementary and Intermediate School will house preschool through sixth grade. West Branch Junior / Senior High School will have grades 7-12. A total of $885,121 is saved.

A committee of staff, community members and staff has been reviewing the options.

Saxton said the school board will meet Feb. 20 and discuss and consider revisions to the three options. If the board doesn’t have a decision, Saxton recommends it makes one no later than Feb. 28.

“By the first of March, we want to start” preparing students for the next step, Saxton said.

Further discussion will happen on the buildings that could be idled. Saxton said they could be maintained, but the school board will need to decide what to do with them within a couple of years.

Enrollment has dropped 495 students over the last 10 years, which can be attributed to people moving away and families not having as many children, Saxton and Stryffeler said.

The district has cut staff and taken other measures to reduce the impact, he said.

He also said the district is working with grant writers to lessen the burden on the general fund.

One parent asked why the district is pushing to make a decision within 30 days, to which Saxton replied: “The timeline is aggressive. Absolutely.” The board has asked for a decision, and the students, staff and community want to know the answer immediately. “That’s why it’s so fast.”

Another parent asked Saxton what would happen if class sizes inflate to 40 students per teacher.

The superintendent said the options would need to be reconfigured if that were to happen.

Saxton also addressed rumors heard in the schools and community.

Those rumors include open enrollment won’t exist; transportation will return to single-tier; student-teacher ratio will be inflated; Project Lead The Way will not happen; closing a school is a threat by the board to pass a levy; and the Latchkey program coming to an end — all of which Saxton said are false.