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Closing Cherry Grade School

CHERRY — In May 1943, Cherry High School ceased to exist.

If all goes as planned, the same fate awaits Cherry Grade School in May 2014.

A combination of evaporating state aid, shrinking property values and declining enrollment has led the Cherry Grade School Board to pursue closing the school at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

On Wednesday, Superintendent Jim Boyle said the board has asked him to prepare a presentation regarding the situation for residents. The public meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

Boyle said the decision has been a long time coming, dating back at least as far as July 2009, when Boyle was hired as interim superintendent.

“When I came here, I asked the board, ‘Do you want me to talk consolidation?’ and they said, ‘No, not yet,’” Boyle said.

But the financial woes came to a head in February 2012, which saw the board approve about $210,000 in working cash bonds to get through the school year.

“When we issued the bonds, that’s when we started talking because the board wanted to know how long the bonds would carry us,” Boyle said.

In December, Brent Appell from the Illinois State Board of Education visited the district to examine the current year’s budget and to do a three-year projection.

“He honestly said, ‘I’m surprised you’re not closing this year,’” Boyle said.

Appell projected a positive fund balance of $112,000 in the combined fund balances of education, operations/maintenance, transportation and working cash funds at the end of the year. However, that will also be the end of the black ink.

Appell projected a deficit of $137,000 by June 30, 2014, and that deficit would grow.

“For 2016, we’d be $710,000 in the hole,” Boyle said.

Cherry’s two major sources of funds are from local taxpayers and state aid. Boyle said the current budget calls for $377,701 in taxes and $179,496 from the state, for a total of $557,197.

That’s a problem when salaries alone are $421,784.

“That leaves $135,413 to run the school,” Boyle said. “For that we can barely turn on the lights and keep the heat going.”

Boyle said those salaries aren’t too high. The average teacher’s salary is less than two-thirds of the state average, and the average administrator’s salary is about three-quarters of the state average.

Administration is provided by Boyle and Tom Nesti, who are both retired and are limited in the number of hours they can work. Boyle said he and Nesti are working with frozen salaries, and for less than previous Superintendent Stephen Westrick received.

Boyle said he guaranteed the board in 2009 there would be enough money to keep the school open for at least four years. Last year the board had to borrow working cash bonds to make it happen.

Boyle said the bonds will be paid off by December 2013.

“I’ve got the ability to pay the bonds back, but I can’t go any farther,” he said.

In order to cover the debt and maintain expenses, the district’s tax rate would have to explode to $6.28.

“That rate is excessive if you compare it to any other school,” he said.

When the board made the decision to look into closing, Boyle contacted the Spring Valley, Ladd and Dimmick elementary districts. Since then, the board decided to invite Ladd Superintendent Michelle Zeko to the Jan. 28 meeting and Dimmick Superintendent Ryan Linnig to the Feb. 18 meeting.

“What I’m seeing is a receptiveness from both districts, and that pleases me,” Boyle said. “You always want to be wanted.”

Boyle said the board called Tuesday’s meeting to educate the public and clarify some issues because some people feel they were kept in the dark about the school’s situation.

“You need to come to the board meetings every month. They’re public, and then you’d be on top of it,” he said. “You’ve also got to trust the people you elected because they’re doing a darned good job.”

Following the presentations by the Ladd and Dimmick superintendents, Boyle said the Cherry board will visit both schools before making a final decision. Next year would be a transition year, while the details of the annexation or consolidation would be worked out between the districts. No matter which district is chosen, the students will continue to be in the Hall High School District.

Boyle said the board is making tough decisions for the good of the students in the district.

“Maybe there’s a couple of people who say, ‘No, we want the school to stay here,’” Boyle said. “But that’s not real. We can’t do it.”

Boyle said the board has to make sure the students get the best possible education.

“Who can go against what’s best for a child’s education?” he said.

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