Summit Hill D161: District Doubles Down on Closure of Two Schools

Arbury Hills School, pictured, and Frankfort Square School are scheduled to close unless residents can convince the District 161 Board to reverse its decision at a February 7 meeting. (Photo by Summit Hill School District)
Arbury Hills School, pictured, and Frankfort Square School are scheduled to close unless residents can convince the District 161 Board to reverse its decision at a February 7 meeting. (Photo by Summit Hill School District)

By Nick Reiher

With the closure of Lincoln-Way North in 2015 after a scant seven years of operation, parents in a grade school district that fed into that building now have to deal with the closing of two of their schools.

The Summit Hill District 161 Board at a special February 7 meeting rejected a resolution that would have rescinded a 4-3 vote taken December 20 to close Frankfort Square School and Arbury Hills School.

Arbury Hills, built in 1960, and Frankfort Square, built in 1973, are the district’s two oldest buildings. The district’s plan includes moving Pre-K students from Julian Rogus School to Mary Drew School, which is 49 years old, and has been closed since 2011.

The crowd at the February 7 meeting filled the boardroom at the Mary Drew Administration Center and spilled over into another room, where the meeting was livestreamed. One parent noted the tight quarters.

“Wow. What a crowded room … just like our classrooms are going to be.”

Parents were given 30 minutes, three minutes each, to comment before the board. Many times, their shouts had to be gaveled down by Board President Jim Martin, whom they target for, in their words, arrogance and a lack of heart.

Martin said he has received texts, emails, Freedom of Information requests and other sorts of communication about the closings. But he believes closing the schools is the proper direction.

The parents at the meeting responded with much fire, including disputing the enrollment figures Dr. Paul McDermott, Superintendent, said have been declining since 2009 and are expected to continue declining for the next five years.

Following the residents’ comments, McDermott made a presentation for about 90 minutes that attempted to show the audience, as well as board members who still had questions, the trends in enrollment, as well as the disparity in student population and per-student spending at each of the district’s seven current schools.

By closing two schools and moving students, he said, the district is aiming to make the attendance and per-student spending more equitable among the remaining schools.

As many of the opponents of the closings disputed the cost of roof repairs and other costs associated with keeping all the schools open, McDermott also had the district’s architect and engineer provide their commentary, attempting to refute what the superintendent called “misinformation” spread through social media and other forms of communication.

Martin had to gavel down loud comments several times during the presentation, threatening to have members of the audience who would not allow speakers to talk, removed.

During audience comments, several said they were extremely concerned about moving special education students, which could not only upset the students’ routines, but break the familiarity with current teachers.

“These kids are fragile,” one parent of a special education student said. “I have consulted with an attorney and am evaluating my rights. And other special needs parents are doing the same.”

During his presentation, McDermott assured parents the district is taking care to make sure special education students’ needs will be met. They will be placed first in the reorganized school plan, he said, and the rest of the students will be placed around them.

He also said District 161 has not had any discussions about Special Education District 843 about them taking over a closed school building. He added that some outside groups have been interested in one of the buildings if they close.

Before the vote, Board Member John Winter, who introduced the resolution to rescind the earlier vote to close the schools, pleaded with the board to delay the closures to determine if there are other options.

Despite the ongoing trends, he said, the vote to close the schools was quick and information was not always easy to find, even for board members. He and Board Member Amy Berk asked for more time to answer some questions.

Berk wondered why there hadn’t been more information on implementation of the closure plan shared with the public.

In the end, the board voted against rescinding the vote to close the two schools and directed those who wanted to find further information going forward to visit the district’s website, summithill.org and click on “School Transition Planning.”

Winter and Berk voted for the resolution to rescind; voting against were Martin and Board Members Joy Murphy, Katie Campbell and Stefanie McCleish.

There were fewer votes this time because Board Member Matt Carey, who had argued against closing the schools, resigned last month.

Calling the district for a comment from McDermott, Farmers Weekly Review was directed to his voicemail, which provided the message, “This function is not available at this time.”

 

Nick Reiher is editor of Farmers Weekly Review.

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