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Ladd courts Cherry

CHERRY — The first of two applicants for the hand of Cherry Grade School made its pitch Monday night.

Before an audience of about 60 residents and concerned friends of the district, Ladd Superintendent Michelle Zeko made a presentation and answered more than 70 questions on what Ladd could offer Cherry students.

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

When the board members made the decision to look into closing, they invited Zeko to Monday’s meeting and Dimmick Superintendent Ryan LInnig to the Feb. 25 meeting.

Zeko began by detailing Ladd’s financial situation. The district has a deficit budget in its education and operations and maintenance funds, but it is covering those deficits with savings. The district has not had to borrow funds to meet the current budget.

Zeko said the only money Ladd has borrowed was for its new school in 2002. She said there is $725,000 remaining, and that will be paid off in six more years.

If Ladd and Cherry merge, Cherry taxpayers would not be responsible for any of the debt for the building.

Cherry’s current tax rate is $4.13 while Ladd’s basic rate is $2.56, plus about 50 cents to pay off the building. If the schools merge, Cherry taxpayers would be charged the $2.56 rate.

Cherry Superintendent Jim Boyle had told the board the Dimmick tax rate is $1.65, but Zeko said there were good reasons to merge with Ladd, despite the higher tax rate.

Zeko said the two districts are similar with supportive communities and experience working together on opportunities for the students.

The districts are less than four miles apart, which would make for shorter bus trips and shorter trips for parents to pick up their students from practice or other events. In addition, Ladd and Cherry are both feeder schools into Hall High School.

Zeko then read a lengthy list of the opportunities available for students, including reading and math improvement classes, music and art classes, and a prekindergarten program. Middle school students have daily physical education, while the elementary students have it three times a week.

Zeko listed family opportunities such as an after-school program and various family activity nights, and extracurricular opportunities such as music, sports and other activities.

Turning to enrollment, Zeko said Cherry is projected to have 62 students in the upcoming school year. A combined Ladd-Cherry school would have 282 students with split classes in every grade but kindergarten, first and eighth grades.

Zeko also talked about the successful transition process when the Leepertown School CHERRY - District dissolved last June and most of the district was annexed into Ladd. She said they would follow a similar process with Cherry, bringing students to the school for a visit and meeting with staff members.

Following the presentation, questions came from the audience.

Al Hahn asked Zeko if she thought bigger classes were better. Zeko said small classes are good for more individualized instruction, but they can get too small. In addition, two grades are combined in each Cherry classroom, so the number of students would be similar after a merger.

Another audience member asked about Ladd’s capacity.

“We would be totally full with these classes,” Zeko said.

Zeko said the new school at Ladd was built with the possibility of adding a wing sometime if enrollment increased sufficiently.

An audience member asked how the classes would be split, and Zeko said the elementary grades would be based on academic ability and any special needs students to make them as balanced as possible. The older grades would be split more along levels of ability.

Regarding the teachers at Cherry, Zeko said the three teachers with tenure would be given positions at Ladd to fill the three new sections that would be required with the addition of the Cherry students.

Zeko was also asked about Ladd’s test scores.

“Our students do very well,” she said. “Not quite as high as Cherry’s, but they do very well.’

Board member Jim Lower then asked Zeko a series of questions, beginning with Ladd’s philosophy on education.

“We always want to put the children’s needs first and give them the opportunity to go as far as they can,” she said.

Zeko also answered a question about technology and said there were whiteboards in every classroom, iPads that can be moved from classroom to classroom, and a computer lab with 32 computers.

Zeko answered another question about the district’s Response to Intervention program for struggling learners. She said several teachers fill the position on a part-time basis, and a pull-out program is available for students who need it.

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