Consultant: Bement should deactivate high school

A school consultant is recommending Bement deactivate its high school, stopping short of advising a full consolidation with neighboring Cerro Gordo.

Bob Rogers delivered results of a feasibility study commissioned by both school districts in Bement and Cerro Gordo Wednesday night. He told crowds at both sessions he felt deactivation would give some financial relief while allowing Bement to keep its own district.

"I think deactivation would allow them to retain that pride by keeping K-8. If they consolidate you kind of lose that," said Rogers. "I think they really want to keep their school, and I think this is the best way you can do it for a long time."

If all Bement high schoolers end up at Cerro Gordo, the combined enrollment would be around 300 students. To deactivate, Bement would need voter approval, then would negotiate a tuition rate to send students to a nearby high school. Deactivation is for a minimum of two years, and Rogers noted students could be sent to more than one high school.

Rogers estimated the move would net savings of around $125,000 annually for Bement should they close the high school and send its 109 students elsewhere. The savings would come mostly through staff reduction of an estimated nine instructors, plus some state incentives given for districts that reorganize. The savings would be despite an estimated $500,000 the district would pay in tuition.

For Cerro Gordo, there would a net income increase of about $160,000 a year, assuming it would hire four of Bement's high school instructors.

Rogers also reviewed the idea of a full consolidation, which would result in a combined K-12 enrollment of 888 students. It would also be one of the larger districts geographically at 191 square miles. His consulting firm was also asked to investigate the possibility of a cooperative high school, but Rogers dismissed it quickly due to the minimum 20-year commitment. In deactivation, voters in Bement could choose to reactivate the high school after two years.

No matter which route is chosen, Bement parent Connie Kinsella feels voters should have more details before anything is put on a ballot, such as the number of staff reductions.

"I'd think the voters would want those details before. There's a big difference as to whether four Bement teachers lose their jobs or 10 lose their jobs," said Kinsella.

Transportation costs would increase for Bement in either scenario, with Superintendent Sheila Greenwood saying it would run at least an extra $50,000 per year.

Around 80 attended the Bement session. After it was adjourned, Rogers gave the same presentation to a crowd of 40 in Cerro Gordo. When asked if the district is being proactive so they aren't left behind as other area districts reorganize, school board president Todd Henricks commented, "we can't be the smallest fish in the aquarium," adding "the last thing we want is to have no choice."

Cerro Gordo Superintendent Brett Robinson said the main thrust has always been to offer more for district students, and added the high school could accommodate the 100 Bement students without any facility additions. A combined high school would also likely result in some added course offerings.

Rogers noted there is a strong track record of cooperation between the two districts due to the successful co-op of sports teams in recent years. That includes a high school football team that has recorded back-to-back perfect records in the regular season.

"You're doing a lot of good things," noted Rogers.

But he warned that declining enrollment and dwindling state reimbursements mean that smaller districts oftentimes have no choice but to think of reorganizing — or risk losing their district entirely.

"I'm not trying to scare anybody," commented Rogers, noting the $594,000 Bement will receive in General State Aid in 2013-14 is $500,000 less than it was four years ago. "There are only so many dollars."

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