‘A very emotional decision’

Maplewood Elementary School students protest the proposed closure of their school before Monday's District 26 school board meeting about the issue at Cary Junior High School. The board voted, 5-2, to close Maplewood.
Maplewood Elementary School students protest the proposed closure of their school before Monday's District 26 school board meeting about the issue at Cary Junior High School. The board voted, 5-2, to close Maplewood.

CARY – Maplewood School will close its doors for the final time at the end of the school year.

After months of discussion, the Cary District 26 board voted, 5-2, on Monday to cease operations at the building this spring on the recommendation of administrators. Board President Dave Ruelle and board Vice President Steve Bush cast the two dissenting votes.

“This is a very emotional decision, and I have to admit I got caught up in it too,” board member Vicki Pesch said. “Until recently, I too was unsure as to whether this was the best option.”

Ultimately, Pesch said she was convinced because closing Maplewood would maintain the district’s “level of educational programming for all students.”

Board member Jason Larry said he looked at the issue as a businessman and educator and supported the decision.

Ruelle and Bush opposed. They cited concerns about the financial assumptions behind the administration’s recommendation.

Administrators, led by Superintendent Brian Coleman, considered several options for closing a school because of the district’s shrinking student population and projected $2.67 million deficit.

Before the vote, supporters of both Maplewood School and Prairie Hill School laid out reasons for keeping their buildings open. For more than an hour, community members, parents and teachers took the opportunity to address the board on the closure matter. Their comments underscored the passion and tensions among the more than 200 people who filled the Cary Junior High School gymnasium.

Earlier Monday evening, dozens of parents and students stood in front of Cary Junior High with picket signs chanting, “Save Maplewood.”
Nicole Taylor, who has a child at Maplewood, said the demonstration was a last attempt to be heard by the board and administrators.

“It’s been frustrating,” Taylor said. “They asked for community input, but it seems like they aren’t listening.”

Parents and teachers at Prairie Hill school spoke out in number for the first time since that school was put on the list of possible closures. A half dozen people asked the board to keep the school open during the public comments portion of the meeting. Julie Birmingham, a fifth grade teacher at Prairie Hill, read a letter to the board on behalf of school staff.

“The data shows that keeping Prairie Hill open would be the best financial decision,” she said. “Closing Prairie Hill would set back many of the district initiatives and educational programs the board has proposed by diluting the leadership that promotes them.”

The letter ended with a plea to “put this divisiveness aside and get on with the business of educating students.”

Coleman took time to reaffirm and provide additional evidence to support the administration’s recommendation to close Maplewood. He detailed both the financial and educational factors considered in the decision. It was the third time he presented the recommendation to board members since October.

“We have done our due diligence,” Coleman said.

Citing the district’s declining enrollment and red ink, Coleman added the closure was needed.

Monday’s vote disappointed many Maplewood parents. However, some parents said they were ready to move on and look at the bigger financial problems.

“It’s not about Maplewood anymore, it’s about saving the district,” said Theresa Slavik, who as a Maplewood parent has been a strong advocate for the school for several months.

Maplewood serves more than 300 students. Built in 1929, Maplewood is the district’s oldest and smallest school. It also is the highest performing and one of the district’s most marketable property, tentatively valued at $2.4 million. At the end of the year, its students will be moved to other schools within the district. Closing the school is projected to save the district almost $900,000 next year and nearly $4.5 million over the next five years.

Also on Monday, the board discussed three proposals for tax increase referendums, but without support for any of the plans the matter was tabled. Board members asked that the proposals be sent back to the Finance Committee for further consideration. To get a referendum question on the February 2010 ballot, a vote is needed before the end of the month. The Finance Committee agreed to hold a special meeting to discuss the referendum options at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Cary Junior High, 2109 Crystal Lake Road.

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