Updated: Board raises levy 14 percent, votes to close elementary school

UPDATED 8:35 a.m. Tuesday.

GEORGETOWN — School officials voted Monday to take drastic steps to reduce a large budget deficit — asking area residents to pay an additional $320,000 in property taxes to the district, and closing one of the district's two elementary schools.

Georgetown-Ridge Farm school board members approved a 14.03 percent increase to the tax levy and voted to close Ridge Farm Elementary School at the end of the 2012-13 school year.

Ridge Farm Elementary, which was built in the late 1980s following the 1986-87 consolidation of the Georgetown and Ridge Farm school districts, currently houses about 150 fourth- and fifth-grade students. Younger students attend Pine Crest Elementary School, and older students attend Mary Miller Junior High School or Georgetown-Ridge Farm High School.

Superintendent Jean Henigman-Neal estimates that the district can save $300,000 a year by closing the school and moving its students and most of its staff to Pine Crest Elementary.

Board members approved a $10 million budget for the current fiscal year in late September that includes about $1.1 million in deficit spending. Neal has said that the state owes the district about $511,000 in general state aid and about $40,000 in transportation costs from last year, and she expects to see the state reduce this year's payments by at least that much again.

"It saddens me that these steps have to be taken, but drastic changes need to be made to close that large deficit," Neal said. "It is my responsibility to look out for the district's needs, to make it more financially stable, and to keep the doors open."

About 30 people attended a tax levy hearing at the beginning of the meeting, and several commented about the levy increase and the fact that Ridge Farm Elementary was being considered for closure.

"It is an atrocity that you are talking the school away from our village," said Ridge Farm Village President Sharon Simmons. "The people of Ridge Farm deserve better than this."

About 900 people live in Ridge Farm.

Stacy Conner, a Ridge Farm resident and mother of a freshman in the district, said that both the children and the village would suffer from the closure.

"The cost savings do not justify this mistake," she said.

Other audience members asked about possibly adding onto Ridge Farm Elementary and using it to house the 285 Mary Miller Junior High students, so that the older junior high could be closed instead. But Neal said the district does not have the funds to add a wing onto a building.

"We are trying to close the deficit, not add to it," Neal said.

Neal assured parents in the audience that the kitchen at Pine Crest would be able to handle the influx of students, although lunchtimes might be adjusted. She said that when she was principal of Oakwood Grade School, there were 600 students in the building and they all ate lunch between 11 a.m. and 12:20 p.m. She estimated there would be about 520 students at Pine Crest next year.

Neal said the board had no immediate plans for the Ridge Farm Elementary building, or for the unit office, which will also be closed. Neal and three office workers will move from the unit office — which is adjacent to the junior high — into an underused wing of the high school, where the early childhood classes will also be relocated from their current home at Pine Crest.

Area resident Richard Foster said the board should not keep increasing property taxes.

"There has to be a stopping point," Foster said.

And resident Marion Davis asked the board to not increase taxes so dramatically, and to look at other options such as cutting expenses.

Neal said closing the school and increasing the tax levy are two big steps towards closing the district's deficit.

"My goal is to close the district's budget deficit in three years," Neal said.

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