Board closes Atkinson? Elementary

Lisa Depies

The Geneseo School Board unanimously voted to close Atkinson?Elementary School.

The seven-person board voted at its July 9 meeting to close the school, effective July 10.

It was with “sadness” that superintendent Scott Kuffel recommended the elementary school close.

Slated to house only first- and third-grade classes during the 2008-09, enrollment at the school had dipped to 17.

“For me, the decision to close is based on the body count,” said school board member Christy Coleman. “I?don’t think it’s good to have only seven or eight kids in a class.”

Because only a few grade levels were offered at Atkinson elementary, parents with older students attending school in Geneseo were offered the option of having their younger children attend school in Geneseo as well.

The option was one many Atkinson parents opted to take.

“We had no idea that so many people would pull younger siblings or that we’d have so few Atkinson kindergartners register,” said Kuffel.

As of the June board meeting, 31 students were registered to attend Atkinson elementary, since that time more parents have opted to move their children to other district elementary schools.

“A month ago, I thought the right thing to do was to keep the school open another year, but there was a tipping point, and we said if the numbers got below 20, we’d close the school. We got below 20,” he explained.

The July board meeting was attended by five Atkinson residents, many of whom felt the district should never have offered parents the choice to move their children.

“I personally feel decisions made by the board have perpetuated the closing of the school,” said Atkinson trustee Caroyln Jiles. “I think the body count could have been adjusted to keep the school open.”

Atkinson mayor Guy Pauley told the board, “You let the doors open so these kids could come over.”

Kuffel explained to the Atkinson residents that even if all students were required to return to Atkinson elementary, the school would only have a population of approximately 70.

And, he added, even those 70 students would be drawn from a larger area than the borders of the former Atkinson School District.

“Our numbers keep going down. This is just a general trend,” said school board president John Puentes.

Students who previously attended Atkinson?Elementary School will now attend one of the three elementary schools in Geneseo.

Board members said instead of offering seven sections of certain grade levels, they now plan to offer eight sections to help reduce class sizes across the board.

Atkinson trustee Sue Mochel told the school board, “Our Atkinson students score better on the state tests, and if class sizes are larger, they’re not going to get the attention they need.”

Trustee Charles Lotridge said closing the school would also affect the village as a whole. “There is an economic benefit to having a thriving school, and from an economic development standpoint, it’s hard to overcome not having a school.”

But with only 17 students remaining, Kuffel said “the situation leads to questions about both the financial viability and academic viability” of the school.

“I was on the Atkinson ?School Board when we decided to merge with Geneseo,” said school board member Alan VanDeWoestyne. “That was a tough night, no doubt about it, but I’ve not been sorry we’ve done it.

“And, since then, we’ve done everything possible to try and keep a school in Atkinson ... maybe we kept it going too long. We can’t keep kids who live in Atkinson going to school where there are only eight or nine students in a class,” he said.

“We’d love to keep Atkinson open, but we have to do what’s best (for the students and the district), and this is the time to (close),” said school board member Barry Snodgrass.

Though closing the school will result in a financial savings for the district, board members stressed the declining enrollment was the No. 1 reason for the closing.

“The numbers have dictated it. Financially, it does make sense, but ultimately it’s not viable to keep a school open for just 17 kids,” said school board president John Puentes.

According to a two-decade old intergovernmental agreement, if the Geneseo School District decides to close the school, the district has 90 dates to vacate the property, which then becomes the responsibility of the Village of Atkinson.

Both the Atkinson mayor and trustee Lotridge said the village “is not in a position to take the building over this fiscal year.”

School board members indicated a willingness to enter into an intergovernmental agreement which would require them to retain responsibility for the building until the start of the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2009.

“We definitely don’t want to make a hardship for the village?(in terms of the building),” said Puentes.

Though Atkinson Elementary School is closed now, if population trends were to dictate it, Kuffel said the board would revisit the idea of re-opening the school in the future.

“I hope we do get to a point where we have to say ‘Re-open the building,’” he told the Atkinson audience members.

As for the immediate future, Puentes said, “It is time to move forward and get ready for the next school year.”