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By Natalie Bruzon
To build or not build?
That’s the question Clearwater-Orchard attempted to answer during Monday night’s meetings.
However, the decision became complicated when, during Orchard’s Original Board meeting, the board unanimously voted to accept a statement read by Candace Hoke stating that Orchard board members will not discuss building a new structure at this time.
“We the Orchard Original Board appreciate everyone’s support and input throughout this process,” read Hoke. “At this time, we cannot justify asking for a bond to build any new structure. Our kids will not be educated any better in a new building. We are open to possibly expanding our reorganization and unification in the future with the inclusion of Verdigre. Right now spending millions of dollars is simply not necessary and would require all schools to consolidate first.”
The feasibility study included Clearwater, Orchard, Ewing and Verdigre. Questions have been raised recently as to whether Verdigre should still be included. Clearwater, Orchard and Verdigre presently make up the Nebraska Unified District #1.
Immediately following Monday’s original board meetings, which occurred in separated rooms at the Orchard site, the two advisory boards came together for their regular meeting. Members from all communities involved were given an opportunity to share their thoughts about the school’s future in light of the feasibility study and Orchard’s recent vote.
Kevin Schrunk, vice president of the Ewing board, was present and asked the Orchard advisory board for clarification on how they will move forward.
“I guess I’m just kind of concerned. What’s your reasons and what’s your thinking of it,” Schrunk said. “Because the way I see it, some numbers we were just kind of punching around, there’s a tremendous amount of savings I think in the long term of doing this.”
Schrunk continued on to point out the amount of savings Pete Funk, Ewing board member, had calculated could be accrued if the schools merged and built a new building.
“Pete Funk was working with some numbers, and he kind of showed me last night that with this figuring we could probably save about $115 million a year, or roughly about 20 percent,” Schrunk said. “If you kind of ballpark, that’s kind of a three-year bond savings out of every five . . . I think you should be more proactive with the kids. I think you’d have better curriculum in the new school; I think more kids would benefit out of it, too. I think we just need to be good neighbors with each other.”
It was mentioned several times that many young families in the community came together on Saturday night to discuss the future of the schools. Chris McKillip of Clearwater stood and shared his sentiment after attending that meeting, saying that the conversation was positive and he hopes the positive spirit continues.
“(On) Saturday evening I attended a meeting with I’m going to say 40 or so parents of mainly younger kids in the school system,” said McKillip. “There were probably about two hours worth of positive, honest discussion about what everyone wanted for their children as far as education. (The) consensus was, everyone felt that we should pick a location, and people weren’t really concerned about where it was located as long as it’s decided and that we stay together. That was the important thing. I hope talks like that continue in the future I really felt like it was a positive experience to sit down face to face with people we hadn’t really discussed it with before. I was just happy to attend it.”
According to Stephanie Cleveland, other community members felt that a meeting of that kind should have been more widely advertised. While she wasn’t against a meeting or anything that was discussed, Cleveland said she thinks these conversations should be public for everyone to provide input.
To close the public discussion, Amy Ahlers asked people to stand in support of the schools staying together. Although not everyone stood in support, photos show about 70 percent of the audience stood when asked.
As an agenda item, the Advisory boards formally discussed the feasibility study, as they had not officially put the topic on their agenda since the study was presented last month.
“A couple my board members asked to put this on here. We’ve never sat down as a group to talk about the feasibility study,” said Clearwater Principal Mike Sanne about the agenda item. “We’ve talked about it at meetings when Gerry Ehlers was here but have not talked about it as a group to see where we’re at. I know it was on your original board meeting agenda as it was for ours. I think we have some questions moving forward here. What is the advisory’s responsibility? What is unified responsibility? I think those are some questions that we all have.”
Orchard’s former secretary and newly-voted treasurer Nate Schwager addressed the vote Orchard had taken earlier that night, saying that the board felt other issues should be resolved before moving forward with a new building.
“As far as our decision to no longer pursue building a school, we feel like we have a couple issues that we need to take care of here first,” Schwager explained. “We’re not saying that we’re not interested in building five or 10 years down the road, but let’s take care of this now and maybe Ewing comes into the unification, maybe they don’t. I guess Pete (Funk) made it really clear the other day that they’re only interested if we build a new school, but I think there were several options in the feasibility study. There were a lot of numbers presented, and we don’t feel comfortable moving forward with constructing a new building at this time.”
Regina Krebs, who presented the Clearwater board with a lot of information to consider during their original board meeting, spoke out about Clearwater’s decision to not take anything off the table and continue pursuing all options.
“I want to applaud you on having such a handle on the pulse of your public to make a decision like that with basically, as far I’m concerned, no public meeting setting,” said Krebs. “But I’m sure your community feels completely at ease knowing that you know their intentions so well. I was really kind of feeling a little disconnected from my constituents at this point because I can’t make that call. I simply didn’t have the information that I felt comfortable in making that call, I had way too many questions. So, I had put those together. I have presented those at our meeting as far as how I think we should move forward, and I’ve got them put together. But again, I guess at this point in time I’m not sure that I want to necessarily move forward and cause any more issues.”
Krebs was also one of the board members who originally requested that the feasibility study be put on the advisory agenda, saying that she felt the boards should talk about it publicly.
“I was just simply surprised when I looked at the agenda that with this being our first opportunity in a public meeting to discuss the study that it didn’t even appear in our agenda at the time,” said Krebs. “However I’ve been told that the Orchard board had made their decision prior to the meeting, and I was warned not to attempt to persuade you otherwise.”
Sanne looked to the Orchard board for direction, in light of their vote to stop discussions on a new building.
“So if Clearwater is interested in keeping moving forward, where do you think we go from here or what do we do?” asked Sanne.
Schwager responded, telling the board that “it’s a decision you’re going to have to make,” to which Thiele responded that at this point, Clearwater would like to continue considering every option.
“We don’t want to take anything off the table at this point. Does a new building seem daunting? Yes. But is that the only answer? No,” Thiele said.
Orchard board member Kristi Schutt brought to light the fact that Ewing at one point said that although they would like to unify with Clearwater-Orchard, they would also like to see Verdigre taken out of the mix.
“I guess one of my concerns is that when I talked to one of the Ewing board members, and Regina was there, the first thing out of their concern was they don’t want Verdigre in our unification,” said Schutt. “And I guess I feel that Verdigre has been in it with us for 17 years, and I don’t think building a building is necessary to get rid of Verdigre. That was one of my main concerns and I told that gentleman that also. I do not want to get rid of Verdigre just because we’re building a building. What are your feelings on that also?”
Thiele responded saying that the Clearwater board has not talked about eliminating Verdigre. The board does feel, according to Thiele, that all options should be discussed before taking any options “off the table.”
The advisory boards ended the conversation with a motion to adjourn the meeting.
Because Superintendent Dale Martin was not present at the meeting, questions regarding what responsibilities the board has in making a decision like that could not be clarified. However, the Unified Board has the feasibility study on its agenda for the next meeting, set on January 16, at 6 p.m. in Orchard.