In an emotional 45-minute public hearing at Whittier Elementary School, several community members appealed to Brainerd School Board members Wednesday to reconsider the school's closure and asked if there was any way the neighborhood could raise enough funds to keep their much-loved elementary school open.
About 40 people attended the public hearing in the gymnasium at Whittier School in north Brainerd, an opportunity for community members to express their thoughts about the proposed closure of the small, neighborhood school as part of the district's $5.5 million in budget reductions necessary by July 1 in light of the defeated operating levy referendum.
While the school board finance committee has recommended the closure of Whittier and Lincoln Elementary Schools, the school board won't make that final decision until its Jan. 14 board meeting. Since Lincoln School is proposed to be repurposed and not technically closed with the relocation of the Minnesota Learning Center to that elementary school by next fall, a public hearing was not required for that school building closure.
Malia Hermerding (right) hugged her sister, Maya, who started crying during a public hearing Wednesday at Whittier Elementary school. The Brainerd School Board heard from members of the public on the issue of the school closing. Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood » Purchase reprints of this photo.
About 15 people spoke up at Wednesday's meeting while many in the audience wiped tears from their eyes as they sat together in the school's gymnasium. School district administrators and board members, with the exception of board member Lew Hudson, who could not attend the meeting, listened to the comments made by community members.
The Whittier polling precinct was one of only three of the 19 combined polling precincts on Nov. 6 that voted in favor of the referendum, including Lincoln School and Baxter City Hall. Claire Steen, a north Brainerd resident whose grown children attended Whittier, asked the board to consider those voting results and the support shown for the referendum there, along with the strong sense of community at Whittier School.
"It doesn't seem fair," said Pat Gimbel, whose daughter attended Whittier. "Give us a number and we'll raise the money. We're one of the few (precincts) that supported the referendum. Keep our school and close one that didn't support the referendum."
Greg Meyer said he and his wife moved to north Brainerd specifically to send their children to Whittier School.
"It was frustrating that very few communities passed the referendum and this school did," Meyer said. "It was frustrating for us to watch Nisswa rally after this thing was over."
Lindy Grell suggested that the board should find another way to save $500,000 with the closure of both schools and instead relocate the Minnesota Learning Center to within the extra space at Washington Educational Services Building, where the district offices are housed.
"I just want you to find another way if you can," Grell said.
Kathleen Hermerding, whose six children attend or have attended Whittier School, asked if there would truly be a cost savings by closing the school, considering the increased transportation costs and parents who decide to instead enroll their children in Brainerd area parochial schools rather than the district. She asked the board to report back in two years on the actual savings that were gained by the school closures.
Whittier elementary school patrol crossing guards Tommy Hofius (left) and Kimberly Oldfield directed a student across a street Wednesday near the school. Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"I don't give a damn what the dollars say at this point," said her husband, David Hermerding. He said the small school atmosphere provides students with a quality education not available at larger schools. "Closing it, you rip out the heart of this community. You rip out the heart of our family. Look outside your hearts to keep this school."
Ben Hermerding, a ninth-grader at Brainerd High School South Campus and a Whittier graduate, tearfully told the school board how one of his best friends who had trouble in reading and math benefited from the small class sizes that Whittier offers. She is now an honors student, he said, adding that some of his peers continue to struggle in school because they didn't develop that same trust and bond with their teachers like he and his fellow Whittier alums have learned because of their experiences at a small school like Whittier.
Carla Staffon-Fossum, whose two college-aged daughters attended Whittier, told a story of when her daughter, Erin, was in first grade and a fifth-grade teacher scolded her for running in the halls, calling her by name. She said the small school has developed into its own community, where all teachers know and care about every student.
"There is a pride and quality that you just can't get in a larger setting," said Staffon-Fossum. "I, too, hope you reconsider."
Matthew Seymour asked the board to consider further reductions in athletics, rather than closing schools.
"Could we cut more sports to save a school?" Seymour asked. "Does a community want to see that happen? I ask you to consider that."
Richard Burton told the school board that the community has a large distrust of the district and referred to Forestview Middle School as the "Taj Mahal." He said people didn't pass the referendum because they are tired of being so heavily taxed but added that the district should not close Whittier School.
"This is a great school," Burton said. "You people have some soul-searching to do. Good luck."
The board took no action at Wednesday's meeting and told community members that they were there only to listen. Board chair Kent Montgomery thanked everyone for their comments and their time.
The school district will host an elementary listening session at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Forestview cafetorium. The school district will unveil its proposed recommendations for kindergarten through fourth-grade program reductions and elementary attendance boundaries. The school board curriculum/student activities committee will then discuss those recommendations at the noon Jan. 2 committee meeting. The school board will have a reorganizational board meeting at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 2.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.
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