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Is Neligh-Oakdale willing to abandon its school and leave the county seat for a cornfield after spending more than $3.1 million in the last five years on facility improvements?
That’s a common question heard around the county after Neligh-Oakdale entered the controversial Clearwater-Orchard-Ewing discussion after two of its board members unofficially met with members from Clearwater and Ewing recently.
While that meeting took place without administrator knowledge, members have since changed their approach. The three districts have all formed official committees to discuss the future. All committees were formed during advertised public meetings.
Neligh-Oakdale’s David Wright, Ron Gilg and Ryan Koinzan have been given official board approval to discuss school options with other districts. Clearwater has approved Amy Thiele and Regina Krebs, while Ewing appointed Pete Funk, Kevin Schrunk and Jason Schindler to do the same.
Three members of the Nebraska Unified Board were also named to a committee to discuss future endeavors — Marty Kerkman of Clearwater, Terri Hergert of Orchard and Peggy Liska of Verdigre.
Most of the individuals selected to the committees were those who met during the first unofficial talk, according to board members.
None of the schools have publicly stated when the board members will begin discussions, but because there will not be a quorum, there is no law requiring the public to be notified when a meeting will take place. State law also does not require the committee to allow anyone from the public to be present.
However, the districts can have all of their committee meetings open to the public for transparency.
With three members from Ewing, three from Clearwater and three from Neligh-Oakdale, it’s also unclear if Orchard and Verdigre will appoint others for equal representation. However, officials said Thiele and Krebs cannot be included when the Unified Board meets with Ewing and Neligh-Oakdale since the Unified Board did not include them as representatives.
State of the schools
Much of the discussion has centered around the costs of operating multiple schools for the districts. While several Ewing and Clearwater board members have vocally supported constructing a new school, Orchard has been reluctant to look at construction while Neligh-Oakdale only initially stated that it wanted to be part of the conversation.
“We just need to have a seat at the table. It doesn’t necessarily have to be consolidation, it could be sharing and co-oping resources, a unified board,” Neligh-Oakdale Superintendent Scott Gregory said. “It could be anything that’s on the table. We have to make certain that if a decision is made to benefit the students and community that we are at the forefront to do that, and I think that’s the main goal of what needs to be accomplished.”
However during Monday’s meeting with the Clearwater Original Board, all three of Neligh-Oakdale’s selected representatives were present. Wright asked if just one of the schools within the unification could pass a bond.
Nebraska Unified Superintendent Dale Martin said Verdigre passed its own bond for its new school, which did not affect Clearwater and Orchard.
“So if the Clearwater district wanted to pass a bond and build a school and have it ready, they could,” Wright asked.
Martin said they could build a new school.
Neligh-Oakdale attempted a $6.9 million bond in November 2014. That failed by 84 percent. It was for new classrooms and improved safety with fire sprinklers and school security.
With the failed bond, Neligh-Oakdale has instead regularly put money toward its facility. According to the school’s distribution report specifically on the facility, Neligh-Oakdale has spent $3,104,294.67 since September 2011.
That includes $1,581,389.52 to Trane for a new HVAC system in the 1930s building, $234,503.01 to Ahern for fire sprinklers to meet fire marshal code and $419,000 to Fischer to replace the dilapidated track.
Last Tuesday’s Nebraska Unified Board meeting was the first time board members from Orchard, Clearwater and Verdigre met after learning of the unofficial meeting between Ewing, Clearwater and Neligh-Oakdale.
There was tone from several board members who were visibly upset by the meeting, asking for an apology and to confirmation that unofficial meetings would not happen again.
Besides discussion on that specific meeting, board members also discussed the roles of Unified Board members as compared to Advisory members.
Superintendent Dale Martin also went over professionalism and expectations of board members. Martin went over a recent article on handling dysfunction within a district and suggestions on how boards can manage themselves professionally.
The six members then spent a considerable amount of time discussing the unofficial meeting between the schools. Peggy Liska of Verdigre was adamant about the violation of board procedure, saying administration should have been contacted and then the board form a committee before a meeting took place.
She asked several times if policy had been followed if the result would have been the same.
Marty Kerkman and Joe Thiele conceded the result likely would have been the same.
Verdigre’s Marty Konopasek said very little during the meeting, but after being mute, every member seemed to stop in their tracks when he spoke. Konopasek
“If Ewing is willing to do this, get into unification,” he said. “They need to step up and commit.”
Ewing: Why Wait?
With talks of the future of many of Antelope County’s schools becoming a hot topic in recent months, one Holt County school has made it clear they want to see progress - and they don’t see any point in waiting.
The Ewing School Board held its regular monthly meeting last Wednesday, April 12. Among the other items on the agenda was public discussion on the continued talks on the futures of Ewing, Clearwater, Orchard and Neligh-Oakdale. Representatives from the three nearby school boards were on hand to voice their support in finding a conclusion as well as to offer their opinions.
The floor was then opened for public discussion, at which point, the representatives from the other schools all voiced their support for a resolution. Ryan Koinzan spoke on behalf of Neligh-Oakdale, simply noting that the board was just in an information-gathering stage. Clearwater’s Amy Thiele noted that the Unified Board, who had held its meeting earlier in the week, discussed the recent feasibility study.
She then asked the Ewing School Board’s opinions on what to do with the study, to which board president Mark Ramold had a direct answer.
“I think we’ve discussed the results of the study. Its obvious the majority of the board or all the board here was interested in building a school with Orchard and Clearwater. Now, where that lies, that question lies to the east. We know where we still stand. We want to build a school with Orchard and Clearwater,” he said.
Ramold continued, reminding everyone that the reason for the study was to start talks of working together with Orchard and Clearwater. Funk agreed.
“It’s what’s best for kids. You’d have a better education facility, a more stable environment, be able to draw better teachers, keep them there and save taxpayers money. I don’t know how you can go wrong doing both then,” Funk said.
Thiele recalled that at the Unified Board meeting, one member expressed interest in a new building 15-20 into the future. Ramold expressed the need to get the process going sooner rather than later.
“It’s funny, somebody probably said that 15 or 20 years ago. My comment is, ‘How long are you going to kick the can down the road?’ It should have been done 20 years ago, 30 years ago. We need board members to step up and do it now.”
He continued, “Somebody asked me once what needs to happen for this to get done. I said ‘All three town boards need to get collection amnesia.’ Forget about everything that’s happened the last 20 years and think about what’s best for your kids, your town, your school and your taxpayers. And just do it.”
Board members stressed the importance of starting communication. Ramold also stressed that it is important that all parties come to the table prepared to find a resolution.
“Too many people want to talk to get their point across instead of talk to listen. That’d be a good place to start,” he said.