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Orchard, Clearwater and Ewing could vote as early as Monday night to consolidate the three school districts into one.
A community meeting Wednesday at Orchard Public School offered a variety of comments, concerns and questions about the future of the district, as well as what will happen Monday during a 7 p.m. joint meeting in Ewing between Orchard, Clearwater and Ewing. There are three possible action items on the agenda — OCE sports/activity COOP beginning 2019-20, school consolidation and proceeding with an RFP for an architect, construction manager at risk company and a financial agent.
“I believe it’s consolidation contingent on a bond, which means we will consolidate if you people pass a bond,” explained board President Candice Hoke.
That means the three boards would approve a consolidation, but the consolidation would not be finalized unless the public voted in favor of building a new school. The feasibility study showed a new school would be needed if the three schools consolidated; however, if just two consolidated, a new school may not be needed.
It was explained at the meeting that to move forward, each board must pass the same motion for consolidation. When asked if Orchard’s board voted 3-3, Hoke said that motion would fail. She said a majority of each board would have to be in favor of the motion for it to move forward, meaning a minimum of a 4-2 vote is needed.
If a three-school merger is not approved by all three boards, two boards could offer a new motion Monday for a two-school merger and leave the third school behind. The agenda item states discussion and possible action on school consolidation, but it does not specify two or three schools. Hoke said Orchard could be left behind if it does not vote in favor of consolidation.
“We have two neighboring partners that want to move forward and have been pretty clear about that and have invited us to do the same. If we don’t agree to do that, I have reason to believe they will move forward without us,” Hoke said.
The board was asked what would happen to Orchard if Clearwater and Ewing voted to consolidate without Orchard. Superintendent Dale Martin said there would likely be movement of students, though it would be hard to know who that would be or when it would happen. The biggest con, he said, would be Orchard becoming an island.
“That would be one of my biggest fears to some extent, if Orchard would be on an island and not have a partner with any of this, whether it’s sharing staff of sharing sports activity programs. Our numbers aren’t big enough in Orchard to fill full teams. In some areas, we’re already short between two schools in some areas,” he said.
When asked who Orchard could co-op with if Clearwater and Ewing moved forward without Orchard, Principal Cathy Cooper said per instruction from the board, she made phone calls to Plainview, Creighton and St. Mary’s about possible co-ops. She said it was presented as an idea and not as a request, so no schools specified whether or not they were interested.
A patron responded to that by saying a key issue that led to Orchard and Clearwater no longer being one school was transportation. She said driving 15 miles was an issue for parents, so she didn’t understand why now Orchard was considering a 30-minute commute.
Looking at the financial aspect, Martin showed the audience that Orchard’s levy would be nearly the same no matter if it consolidated or was alone, ranging from .49 to .52. But Clearwater and Ewing would see dramatic differences in their levies without Orchard. However, if Orchard unified with Verdigre, the levy would increase to .68
Projected general levies (not including the bond for a new school) are as follows:
Clearwater-Orchard consolidated: .5040
Orchard-Ewing consolidated: .4938
Clearwater-Ewing consolidated: .6103
Clearwater-Ewing-Orchard consolidated: .5102
Orchard-Verdigre Unified: .6860
Orchard Alone: .52
Another concern was staffing because many teachers and staff, including some with families, would lose their jobs. Cooper said 17.5 fewer faculty would be needed and roughly that many staff, leaving about 35 people without jobs in the three communities. Those numbers are only estimates.
There was also concern of what would happen to the current buildings in the three communities. Laura Ferguson, board member of the Orchard Economic Development Association, said each community has organizations that could assist with buildings.
Several patrons talked about the number of students for class sizes and athletic classification. With a three-school merger, the new school would likely be Class C2 but not have more than 40 students per class, which Rachael Cheatum said isn’t as big as some may think. Cheatum attended Page through junior high and Orchard in high school, graduating in 1996.
“Our three schools together are going to be what Orchard was 30 years ago when we were all in school, and none of us thought Orchard was very big. I know you all thought Page was really little, and I had 13 kids in my class,” she said. “I think that might be our biggest class here now. Looking at that way now, I didn’t think Orchard was big, and we had 23 maybe in my graduating class here….We’re talking about having classes of up to 40 kids. That’s going to be what we all went to school with.”
Board member Terra Williby said she’s not ready to vote in favor of consolidation until she has more information on building costs, which are only estimates at this time. A new building could add up to 17 cents on the levy, which would make it .68 for Orchard-Clearwater-Ewing. Both Orchard and Clearwater currently have a levy of .64, so a new school could raise their current levy four cents with 2018 valuations.
Board member Kristi Schutt said she is in favor of moving forward with a vote of the public on consolidation with a bond but not simply consolidation. She also wants a clear Plan B on what to do if a vote fails. Bond votes could potentially happen every six months, according to the board.
“We still have to have a Plan B in case a bond does not pass. It has to pass in all three communities, so we need input also on what is our Plan B from everyone,” Schutt said.
Few audience members specifically told board members whether they wanted to move forward or not with consolidation, but several asked the board to put the decision in the hands of the public and let them decide. To do that, they said, the board would have to vote in favor of consolidation contingent on a bond vote.
“I hope you guys vote to give us — the community — the option to vote if we want it or not. I guess I would really appreciate that you at least let us decide if we can vote on that,” one patron said.
Residents in the Orchard district have until noon Monday to answer a survey question telling the board if they favor or are against consolidation with Clearwater and Ewing. Surveys can be turned into the Orchard office until noon.
Watch the entire meeting:
View the slides presented: