Hearing on Dickey Elementary School closing set March 5 following 5-4 vote
By KEVIN A. MCKEE
MILL HALL – Dickey Elementary School, which has been open since 1966 and serves around 300 students, could be closed in a move that would save the Keystone Central School District upward of $1.6 million.
On Monday night, dozens of community members met in the Central Mountain High School auditorium to discuss the potential closing with school board members in an evening forum that began at an unusually late 8:15 p.m.
The school board is struggling to confront a $7 million budget deficit for 2018-2019, even after having already decided to cut jobs and programs in a preliminary budget approved on Feb. 1.
On the table are upward of 40 positions cut through a combination of attrition and elimination, plus a reduction of programming.
Last night’s special meeting come shortly after word that the Association of Clinton County Educators, the Keystone teachers’ union, rejected the board’s request for a two-year pay freeze, as well as a reduction in coaches’ salaries.
The first speaker was parent Jim Foster, who initially focused his comments on the district’s debt payments toward bond issues, especially pertaining to the timeline of closing Dickey.
“The district has (payments of) $4 million, $4 million, and $1 million after that left,” Foster said, asking, “Is it worth $4.8 million to close a school when the board will be (without debt) in four years?”
He then asked again, “Why are we in such a rush to close it this year?”
His suggestion was to “address it next year depending on taxes,” saying the district isn’t operating with full information currently due to the uncertainty surrounding a possible property tax increase that could go beyond the 3.3 percent maximum if exceptions are granted by the state Department of Education.
The application for exceptions was submitted in December, but the state takes time to review everything before responding.
An emotional parent, Mary Lundt, was next to speak.
“I have a child that is just starting elementary,” she began.
“I would have to see her fall behind (if Dickey closes) because she’ll be shoved under the rug and fed to the dogs. I, as a mom, will have to make a decision for what is best for my child.”
“My major concern is how redistricting will work: Woodward, Mill Hall, and Robb will have to house all of those kids.”
She also referenced that she is willing to consider cyberschool for her children, depending on the district’s decisions.
Lundt closed by stressing that 30 kids in a classroom is unacceptable to her, and that education should be priority one to the district.
Third to bat was recurring speaker Elisabeth McCoy, who suggested that closing Dickey would be good for the students, as it would “integrate students in more of a community environment.”
McCoy has been an advocate for certain schools and more in favor of closing others for some time, perhaps as a result of her time spent with the property services task force group.
As such, she once again plugged Woodward and Bucktail for being “wonderful.”
She doubled down on the benefits to the students of experiencing diversity at a young age to “take them from a high density neighborhood and give them some green space.”
However, she phrased her idea by asserting that it would be “good for the students to associate with a different class of people.”
That upset a contingent of parents from Dickey, as well as others.
It resulted in her being talked over to the point where the board threatened to remove people if she was not allowed to finish speaking.
Flustered, McCoy touched on buildings with Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, which involves ramps instead of stairs, before ending her time.
She closed by apologizing “if I insulted anyone … my wish is for the students to be in a community atmosphere.”
She also apologized several times throughout, noting that she “obviously did not phrase her idea well.”
The final speaker for the evening was Claire Eckley, a former Keystone board member who posed several questions:
“Why is the school district bankrupt?”
“When did you find out that it’s going to be bankrupt?”
“What happened to the surplus that had been built up?”
Responding to the tension in the room caused by McCoy’s statement, she emphasized the importance of “keeping the children in the neighborhood where they belong.”
She urged the board to not separate the kids because of where they live.
Raising her voice, Eckley closed by saying, “We are a community to raise fair-minded citizens. Let’s do it,” to which she received much applause.
At that point, board president Charles Rosamilia asked his fellow board members if anyone would like to make a motion.
That led board Vice President Debbie Smith to move to hold an official hearing on closing Dickey Elementary.
Her motion was seconded by Billie Rupert.
Following this, a roll call vote was issued.
Billie Rupert, Deb Smith, Wayne Koch and Bo Miller “with a heavy heart” all voted “yes” for the hearing.
Tracy Smith (who attended by phone), Jen Bottorf, Roger Elling, and Eric Probert all voted “no.”
Rosamilia cast the deciding “yes” vote, leaving the board split at 5-4.
Said Rosamilia: “Yes because it’s an option and we need to keep the discussion open, not yes because Dickey will for sure close.”
The public hearing will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, March 5.
It will be open to the general public.
Rosamilia stressed that “everyone will have an opportunity to speak if they wish.”