Frontier may have to shutter schools

NEW MATAMORAS – The closing of not just one but two elementary schools could be on the horizon for the Frontier Local school district after the overwhelming rejection of an emergency levy two weeks ago.

“I am trying to look and see how to get down to one elementary school,” Superintendent Bruce Kidder said during Monday’s board of education meeting in the Frontier High School library.

Voters rejected the five-year, 9.19-mill levy on Nov. 5, with nearly 85 percent opposed. Citing declining enrollment and reductions in state and federal funding over the years, officials had said there was no way the district could continue to operate in its current form of three elementary schools and one middle/high school without the additional money.

On Monday, board President Justin Hoff asked Kidder what the plan was going forward “since the levy failed miserably.”

Kidder said buildings and personnel are the only areas from which the district can cut.

“I think the community spoke pretty clearly that we need to do something before we go back on the ballot,” he said.

Lawrence Elementary School is the district’s oldest building, has the smallest enrollment and costs the least to run. Discussions about closing it began prior to the 2011-12 school year, but despite removing the kindergarten class for a year and combining grades, the school remains open.

Newport and New Matamoras Elementary and the renovated high school opened in 2002. The $2 million-plus bond issue to provide the local share of that project won’t be paid off for about nine years.

“I may be paying on a building that’s closed,” Kidder said.

Although the district has a little more than 700 students enrolled from K to 12, Kidder has previously said there isn’t enough room at either Newport or New Matamoras for all of Frontier’s elementary schoolers to attend. Existing structures would have to be converted to classroom space.

“I can make three classrooms off the old gym” at Newport, Kidder said. “New Mat’s got the red building that needs a roof on it. That would give me somewhere around eight classrooms.”

There is an extra building at Lawrence, Kidder said.

The district has enough money to continue operating as is this year and next, but that would deplete the cash reserves significantly. The board last year approved a policy requiring an $800,000 cash reserve, the equivalent of 40 days of operating expenses. The most recent five-year forecast puts the reserve below that number at the end of the current school year and at less than $300,000 by the end of 2014-15.

“We couldn’t finish the (second) year and stay at that … cushion,” board member Jeff Knowlton said.

Leaving the budget unchanged would trigger intervention from the state before the end of the 2014-15 year, Kidder said.

No decisions were made Monday about how to proceed. Those votes will likely be made after three new members join the board in January.