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N-F mulls move to one PreK-12 school in Newell

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The first of two public meetings will be held tonight to air the results of a nine-month study led by the Newell-Fonda schools Grade Realignment Committee, which includes a proposal to close the Fonda school building and turn the Newell building into a pre-kindergarten to 12th grade facility.

Nothing is set in stone, and the district's goal for the meetings is to gather as much public input on the buildings situation as possible, Superintendent Jeff Dicks said.

Tonight's meeting will begin at 7:30 at the school in Newell, and a similar meeting will be held October 2 at 7:30 at the Fonda building.

The committee feels that there could be considerable savings by combining all of the grades into one campus in Newell, Dicks said. "There could also be some gains in staff utilization and the ability to improve what we can offer by having everything in one place also," he said.

Sioux City Architects FEH Inc. have been consulted, and one possibility would be to build an addition onto the Newell school, adding four elementary classrooms. This would make it possible to arrange a K-6 wing in the building, according to Dicks.

The move is not one of desperation, but an example of the district attempting to be proactive, the superintendent says.

"This isn't a necessity right now - we don't have to do this. But Newell-Fonda has always been on the proactive side, and we are looking at the future. The potential savings compounded by 10 years would be considerable."

If the district chooses to retain both buildings, the Fonda structure remains viable, with the custodial staff putting in long summer hours to ensure that both schools are in good condition.

Fitting all of the grades in the Newell building should not overcrowd students. "It was a K-12 at one time, it could definitely fit," Dicks said. "But this is not all about saving money - we want to provide a nice learning environment opportunity, and that will be one thing we will be discussing."

The district expects a slight decline in student population for this school year, but projections for the future look pretty stable, the superintendent said. The proposal for closing the Fonda building has nothing to do with any potential for sharing with other districts, and N-F is not planning for any merger with any other district in the foreseeable future.

Rising fuel costs plays only a small role in the discussions. While the district would save heating costs on one building and would no longer need to bus Newell students to Fonda, it would still have to run bus routes to bring students of all grade levels from Fonda to Newell.

"It's impossible to determine where energy costs may go in the years ahead, and the committee has been quite careful not to try to pinpoint exact expenses and savings in this proposal, because so many factors can change," Dicks said.

The proposal could have some social benefits as well, with students of all ages sharing a building. When asked, Dicks said that might be the "hidden benefit" - noting that district has found great success with programs like Friday Football Readers where high school athletes go to the elementary classrooms to spend time with the younger children.

"Having that contact does make a difference. Come Friday, I can tell you that those kids are wearing their jerseys and high-fiving the football players, and it does build districtwide pride. There are probably some implications here like this that we havn't even considered."

Dicks said he isn't sure how Fonda residents will react to the proposal, but said he expects plenty of input from the town when the second meeting rolls around.

"It is always emotional any time you discuss the possibility of closing a town's school building - yes, we recognize that," he said.

So far, though, he said he has not heard a lot of reaction.

"It's early, and this is far from a foregone conclusion. This is discussion," Dicks said. "We are fortunate to have a great relationship between Newell, Fonda and Varina communities. It is a true partnership."

School leaders are hoping for good turnouts to the meetings and healthy discussion.

"It is very challenging to try to do community meetings this time of year, with all the sports and school activities going on at night, and the harvest season coming," Dicks said, "but we very much encourage people to come out and hear the proposals and share their thoughts with us."

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