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SF To Consolidate Elementary Schools

Kealey Bultena

Hundreds of elementary students who attend a handful of Sioux Falls schools say goodbye to their buildings by 2015. Monday night, school board members approve shutting down two small, older schools and constructing one larger building on the site of a third elementary. At the meeting, parents and school administrators split along ideological lines.

On a chilly November evening, dozens of people pack a large room at the Sioux Falls School District’s administration building. Parent John Dewitz waits silently as board members conduct regular business. Then his opportunity to speak arises.

"I’ve spent a lot of times in classrooms. I have three different degrees from four different schools, mostly just because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to be when I grew up," Dewitz jokes. 

Dewitz explains he’s spent time in a variety of classes of different sizes with different teachers. Two of his children attended Longfellow Elementary for their early learning years, and his kindergartener goes to class at Longfellow now.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
John Dewitz addresses the Sioux Falls School Board

"It’s the most diverse school in Sioux Falls, and I think that experience is just wonderful for all the children there," Dewitz says. "The learning opportunities, both of my girls that have gone there have both gone on in the gifted program, so it’s not a matter of it not being a good school to be educated at. I think it just came down to finances."

Sioux Falls School Board members acknowledge that money does play a part in their decision. School board president Doug Morrison says consolidating Longfellow, Jefferson and Mark Twain students into one location saves the district about $800,000 each year. He says upgrading the aging schools is expensive.

"We were faced with making some substantial monetary improvements to them just to get up to the basic level that we need them to to be ADA compliant and things like that, and so we had to really look at whether we wanted to make those substantial investments or whether we wanted to take a different path," Morrison says.

That means shutting down Longfellow and Jefferson Elementary schools and constructing a large new building at the Mark Twain site for all of those students to attend class. Morrison stresses that a bigger school building doesn’t mean classroom sizes increase. He says, for central Sioux Falls schools with challenging enrollment, consolidation is the answer.

"To me, it was a win-win. We were able to not abandon the core of the city, because we’re investing building a brand new elementary school on the same site that one of them exists today. It’s the same model that we did when we built Terry Redlin and did a school consolidation there," Morrison says. "At the same time, we’re getting those operational saves by consolidating three schools into one."

One board member is against the elementary consolidation proposal. Kate Parker acknowledges she has a son who attends Longfellow School, but she says she opposes the plan because people who elected her don’t want this switch.

"I am concerned about educating the 150 ELL [English Language Learning] students that we have at Longfellow," Parker says. "I’m concerned about educating the 78 percent that are on free and reduced lunch at Longfellow. I am concerned about the well-being and safety of our students."

Just one parent speaks in support of the school board’s plans, and she specifically applauds the district’s Spanish immersion efforts. Board President Doug Morrison says that ratio doesn’t adequately reflect the community’s sentiment.

"We went above and beyond. We normally don’t have public input sessions, but we had two of those, and for two hours on those two nights, we all stood here, listened to a community setting where the community came in, and we just dialogued. [We] said ‘Here’s what we’re thinking, what do you think?’ And we heard people on both sides," Morrison says.

At one of those September sessions, parent David Andersen diplomatically weighed the elementary school options.

"Well you know there always can be benefits of new facilities. You can do things differently that they couldn’t do a hundred years ago. It’s hard to maintain old buildings," Andersen says. "I like the character of the building a lot. I like the overall population of it."

Three months later, Andersen takes a side.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
David Andersen speaks to school board members

"I thought about it. I did some research," Andersen says. "I talked to a lot of people and found out, conclusively, that small schools are a pretty great environment for kids, especially young kids and low-income kids."

Andersen’s daughter is a Mark Twain kindergartener. He advocates for her; he wants her educated in a small school with a diverse population within a close-knit community. Andersen says he still hopes the board finds a way to preserve the integrity of small school environments.

"I hope we look back on this and we don’t have regrets. I understand the board’s position; I really do," Andersen says. "I know I would be thinking very hard about the money if I were on the board. I would probably want to step back, though, and think really hard about what’s going on and look for any potential for an alternative."

The Sioux Falls School Board meeting ends in just more than an hour. The panel decides to consolidate the three elementary schools into one new building by a vote of four to one and adjourns. 

Board President Morrison says the district is considering turning Jefferson Elementary into a citywide pre-school; the panel hasn’t established how to repurpose Longfellow Elementary within or outside the district.

Education Sioux Falls, South DakotaEducationelementaryschool
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