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Board to hear closure report

Parents at Ashland's Briscoe Elementary School strongly disagree with the closure committee's methods and findings

ASHLAND ' Pricey homes and scarce jobs are steadily draining young families from Ashland. Combine this with two years of recession and a miserly state support for education and you get school closures, a painful process that has Briscoe Elementary parents grieving and crying foul.

A citizen-staffed School Closure Committee on Monday evening will present its findings to the Ashland School Board, placing Briscoe atop the hit list for closure, with Lincoln Elementary second. The session is not a public hearing; district residents may attend, but no time is officially allotted for public discussion.

The board will vote Dec. 9 on which school ' or possibly two schools ' to close, a process to be completed in June. The board is not bound by the committee's findings.

Committee member Polly Geist, who represented Briscoe, will present a minority report to the school board charging that data used by the committee was skewed ' and that the committee erred in being entirely data driven and in not considering atmosphere and educational environment.

We got nailed, Geist said. The process started a year and a half ago with rumors that Briscoe and Lincoln were targeted and that's exactly what it came to. The data was sloppy, inaccurate and sometimes weighted wrong. Briscoe teachers and parents are afraid and depressed and we've been struggling all year because of the rumors.

Briscoe parent Chris Dodson said much of the committee's information was outdated, especially seismic data from 1995.

When the school board and administration is marching in one direction and no one's following, she said, it means you're going down the wrong path. They need to focus on the values of the community and exhaust other options.

Committee members stuck up for their data and methods. Committee member Ellie Thivierge, representing Lincoln School, said it was a sad situation but the safety issues of Briscoe were huge, especially seismic reports on the two-story brick building. Needed repairs are estimated at &

36;1.93 million, more than twice the other four elementary schools put together.

It scares me to death, said Briscoe PTA President Nancy Bestor, mother of two Briscoe students, to think about an earthquake at Briscoe. I don't think it could withstand it.

In five of nine graded categories, Briscoe came out with the lowest possible scores ' and got second-to-lowest in two more categories.

The closure report card gave Bricoe the lowest rating for classroom capacity, land area, busing access, parking, maintenance costs, and seismic retrofit. It got higher but still low scores for operational savings (if closed) and for its location outside of potential high growth areas.

We tried to be as objective as possible, so that emotion did not enter into it, said committee member Keith Massie, who also works as a geographer-demographer for the county. We generated very little data but relied mostly on reports from the school district or experts in their field, like seismic, fire, maintenance and parking.

Briscoe parents are upset and feeling a lot of grief, said Thivierge, but if people took time to read all the reports, I think they would feel differently.

Ashland School Superintendent Juli di Chiro said that, based on the latest demographic report projecting a 15 percent decline in elementary students over the next five years, she will recommend the closure of two schools so as to avoid a repeat of difficult and divisive school closure process again in two to three years.

The board is aware of the dire financial situation the district is in, di Chiro said. That's what brought us to this place and we are down to our last strategies.

Following a likely board vote to close one or two schools, the attendance boundaries, class times and bus routes will be redrawn in January, with open houses at schools and transfer requests being handled in February.

Di Chiro said the district will likely keep possession of the closed school or schools, leasing them out for a few years to see if the demographics hold to predictions. Closure will save the district about &

36;300,000 a year for each school, she added.

I'm confident, said Bestor, that no matter what school is closed, my children are going to have great teachers and a great experience. The administration has told us that no teachers will lose jobs because of this and that there will be adequate classroom space even if two schools are closed, so I'm not worried.

Briscoe principal Michelle Zundel said it was apparent that Briscoe was targeted, so many people expected it. The community, she said, needs to look beyond the immediate situation to the bigger issue of providing stable school funding.

We have the responsibility as adults and decision-makers to provide a good quality of life through both our state and federal governments. We face complex problems because our country is in recession, but I believe in the capacity of adults to express the leadership and creativity such as John Kennedy showed when he said we'd put a man on the moon before the decade was out ' and we just came up with what it takes to make that happen.

John Darling is a free-lance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.orgBoard meets WHO: Ashland School Board

WHAT: District board work session to consider closing district elementary schools

WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Monday

WHERE: Ashland High School library