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The future of Cherry Grade School

CHERRY — About 150 Cherry residents and friends attended a town meeting at the Cherry Grade School Thursday to discuss the future of the school.

“It is a very heart-wrenching experience to give up your school if that’s what has to be done,” Superintendent Jim Boyle said. “It tears at your heart because it’s the very foundation of your community.”

The purpose of the meeting was to explain to the community how a combination of evaporating state aid, shrinking property values and declining enrollment had led the board to pursue closing the school at the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Board President Rebecca Hoscheid began the meeting by saying the board has discussed closing the school for quite a few years, and is united in its decision.

Next on the agenda was Brent Appell from the Illinois State Board of Education, who discussed his review of the school’s finances.

Appell focused on the education fund, through which much of the school’s activities are paid. The fund took in $712,000 in revenue in 2008, but that figure has been dwindling ever since.

At the end of last year, the education fund showed its first negative balance of $32,000, which caused the board to sell $200,000 in working cash bonds. This year there’s a budgeted deficit of $65,000 in the education fund, which is projected to drop to almost $250,000 the following year.

In overall fund balances, the district ended last year with $209,000. This year it is projected to end with $112,000, and next year the overall balances will drop to a negative $137,000.

To balance the budget the board would have to make cuts, and Appell said it’s hard to find ways to cut with only five teachers.

Borrowing is another option, but Appell said the district is limited to about $200,000 it can issue in bonds.

And even though the equalized assessed valuation of the district is going up, that will only bring in an additional $10,000.

A member of the audience asked why the board didn’t come to the people a couple of years ago if finances were so bad.

Board member Jim Lower said the board issued the bonds and made a number of adjustments and cuts in an effort to solve the problem, but the efforts didn’t work. He also said residents could have attended school board meetings, which was greeted by loud grumbling throughout the audience.

Audience member Al Hahn said he reviewed the school minutes, and the first time board discussed consolidation was Sept. 24, 2012.

Lower said it might not be in the minutes, but the issue had been discussed for years.

“At our first meeting with Boyle he asked if we wanted to talk abut consolidation,” he said. “(Former Superintendent Steve) Westrick wanted to talk about it, but we weren’t interested. We wanted to work things out.”

A woman in the audience said the district hasn’t had a referendum since 1985, and said the board should have let the voters decide.

Boyle said the tax rate would have to double, and the district would still have to cut staff to pay the bills.

“I didn’t know how much the taxpayers could take,” he said.

Another member of the audience agreed, and said nobody would vote to double their tax bill.

Hahn said the board went too long without asking for help, and then said only board member Craig Mitchell had roots to the school.

Lower’s voice raised as he talked about his two sons in the school, and everything he and the other board members have done at the school.

“This board has busted their butts for this school,” he said. “We have done everything we can for this school.”

A woman in the audience said she had called Boyle last year when her tax bill increased dramatically, and he explained how the money was for the working cash bonds, which would buy two more years.

“You should have read your tax bill,” she said. “This wasn’t a blind-side.”

Other audience members said their children were feeling the impacts of the cuts, and one woman asked why the board was waiting 18 months to close the school.

Boyle said the board wants to hear from both the Ladd and Dimmick school districts. Ladd will attend the Jan. 28 meeting, and Dimmick will be at the Feb. 25 meeting.

Another member of the audience said she had just learned about the cuts to the music and physical education departments. She said the parents has known and they could have come to the meetings, which was met by scattered applause.

Boyle discussed the cuts the board had made, which included the physical education teacher, reading specialist, music teacher, one full-time custodian position, and reduced hours for the art teacher and bookkeeper. The only staff at the district now is one part-time bookkeeper, one secretary, five teachers, two part-time custodians, the treasurer, four coaching positions and two part-time administrators.

A plaintive note was sounded when one audience member asked Boyle if he could find a district that will welcome Cherry students with open arms.

Boyle said he guaranteed he could find a district.

“If we can’t be the people that they can rely on to make good decisions for them, then we’ve done them an injustice,” he said.

Applause met that remark, as did Boyle’s comments about the fond memories people will have of the school.

“Just because it closes its doors, the spirit of the school will always be with the children that walked through these halls,” he said.

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