CERESCO — When the topic resurfaced, it was already a sore subject.
Like the 11 miles of road separating Valparaiso and Ceresco, a divide has wedged itself into the Raymond Central Public Schools community.
One side thinks the school district’s two elementary schools should consolidate into a new facility to be built on Raymond Central High School’s campus — located in the middle of the district’s four principal communities of Davey, Raymond, Ceresco and Valparaiso.
The other side hopes to see Ceresco and Valparaiso retain their elementary schools. They think losing the community schools will have a negative impact on the towns’ prosperity.
“It’s not that we haven’t been down this road before,” says Ceresco resident Dave Burklund. “It’s the same road we went down 22 years ago.”
People are also reading…
The discussion has taken place periodically over the past 25 years, and a survey was put out in the late 1990s gauging support and opposition to centralizing the elementary schools. When the results came back, there were 18 more votes in support of keeping the schools in Ceresco and Valparaiso than there were votes for consolidating the schools.
Burklund, whose wife is Raymond Central Board of Education member Cathy Burklund, is one of a strong contingent opposed to the school district’s proposed $41.8 million bond issue, which is set to be voted on in a mail-in election starting on Monday and lasting until May 9.
The bond would pay for a new, 62,000-square-foot elementary school at the central site campus, as well as upgrades to the high school building.
The district’s school board has been building up to this election for well over a year, when they first tabbed financial advisor First National Capital Markets to perform a feasibility study that examined the pros and cons of consolidating all district operations onto the central site, identifying “several educational, financial and operational benefits” the district could realize. That study has since been criticized, however, for overlooking potential changes to state aid that could be caused by consolidation.
From there, the school board hired BVH Architecture to conduct facilities studies and to develop a timeline leading up to a potential bond vote. They moved forward with the understanding that building upgrades would be needed to address rising enrollment at the high school and Ceresco elementary, while all three facilities had structural and functional issues that were causing issues for teachers and students.
Last fall, several months before the school board determined the construction projects it would include in the bond package, yard signs began popping up around the district’s communities reading: “S.O.S. Save Our Schools.”
Now, as the election nears, those signs are plentiful, and the newer ones urge citizens to “vote no” on the bond.
“We’re pretty proud of our signs,” says Tammy Sharping, a Ceresco resident who has spoken on behalf of the Save Our Schools group at several Raymond Central school board meetings.
“We moved here for our kids to walk to school,” Sharping said in a recent interview. “We built our homes here, and a lot of people move to town because it’s got a school for their children to attend.”
The Save Our Schools group’s signs still make up the majority in Raymond Central’s communities, but yellow signs in support of the bond are now lining streets as well. People like Ravae Masek — who lives in rural Ceresco and whose children option to Raymond Central from the Waverly school district — see benefit to having all of the district’s elementary students educated in one place.
“I’ve experienced the divide,” Masek said. “I’ve experienced what it’s like to get together as sixth graders after you’ve been playing against each other in sports for seven years.”
Currently, Raymond Central has its PreK program located at the central site. Students spend their elementary school years in either Ceresco or Valparaiso. Then they’re brought together at the central site when sixth grade signals the start of middle school.
Masek also believes the education students receive will improve with class sizes evening out, and with teachers having the ability to work collaboratively. In an anonymous survey conducted by BVH last summer, elementary teachers noted their desire to be able to work more closely with other teachers. And, depending on whether either school offers one or two grade level sections, classroom counts can be either larger than desired or smaller than normal.
“If you’ve got 16 students in one classroom in one building, and you’ve got 26 students in the classroom in the other building, those students are not getting the same education,” Masek said.
Burklund and Sharping, meanwhile, maintain that the elementary schools’ enrollments have not risen to the point that the district would not be able to reassign certain classrooms to make room.
“It’s not that we’re out of space,” Burklund said. “We’re out of space the way we’re using the space.”
Sharping added that she thought the educational impact of consolidating the elementary schools would be negligible.
“They keep saying the resources will be better. ‘Collaboration,’” she said. “It stays the same, except for the teachers collaborating. And is that worth losing our schools? Is it worth the $41.8 million to the taxpayers?”
Burklund said it would be unwise to run a bond in the current economy, with steep interest rates and inflated construction costs.
“It’s just the wrong time to run a bond,” he said.
But Masek — who said she invests in property — said costs are not likely to go down in the future.
“There’s never going to be a better time to build,” she said. “Building has never gone down in the 47 years that I’ve been alive.”
Sharping said her vote comes down to keeping the schools in Valparaiso and Ceresco.
“I’m not going to push the money thing. People can see the numbers and make up their own minds,” she said. “It’s about keeping the school in town. It’s where it belongs.”
To Masek, the students’ education is the bottom line. She said she would have supported a bond issue to pay for a brand new high school and for reconfiguring the existing high school into an elementary school.
“I could care less about the money,” she said. “It’s about the kids, to me. It’s the right thing to do.”
How will busing work?
A particular point of contention is how the school district’s bus routes will be impacted by having to pick up elementary students in Valparaiso and Ceresco and taking all students to one location.
The recently launched informational website detailing the need for a consolidated central site (rcmustangsunited.com) explains that busing times would be shorter for students than they are now. The site says rural students would experience a similar busing situation, while those who live in Ceresco and Valparaiso would be gathered at pick-up locations in the two communities and would then be shuttled to the central site.
Burklund said he’s skeptical that the shuttles would be able to fit into the busing system’s daily schedule, and fellow bond opponent Hailey Drahota says she would be worried about sending her soon-to-be kindergarten student on a bus from Ceresco.
“I lose sleep over this,” Drahota said. “I cannot imagine sending my son out there on a bus.”
Masek, on the other hand, thinks it would be hard to make the current bus system worse. She said there are students in the rural Ceresco area who have to ride the bus to Valparaiso because of capacity issues at the Ceresco school. There are other students who have to transfer from one bus to another. Administrators have said that problem would be eliminated with the new bus system.
What will the levy impact be?
If the bond vote passes, the district’s bond levy will rise to 35.4 cents per $100 of property valuation. That would represent an increase of 26.8 cents over the district’s current bond levy. The district’s existing bond debt — outstanding from high school upgrades and improvements in the early 2010s — would be “wrapped” into the new bond purchases, according to district municipal advisor Tobin Buchanan of First National Capital Markets. Wrapping the two bond debts together creates one bond amount to be paid off over 30 years.
Both sides have shared contradictory information in recent weeks in Facebook community groups, with opponents presenting the yearly total that property owners will pay per $100,000 of valuation — $354 per year per $100,000. Supporters have called that information misleading.
Buchanan explained that the bond levy — which would not be set in stone until bonds are purchased — would start at a certain rate and combine the previous bond levy with the new one. Over time, however, the actual levy is likely to decrease, he said, as the school district’s land valuation is expected to increase. He also said population and housing growth could contribute to a decreased levy.
“If I were asked if I really believe it would be 35.4 cents for 30 years, I think all the evidence from both this district and other districts is that it does not remain at that level,” Buchanan said. “It’s probably at the high point at this point in time.”
Still, the total bonds the district has to pay off will remain the same.
What about the loss of the site allowance state aid?
Opponents have also pointed out that the district would no longer receive a site allowance as part of the state’s equalization aid, which has spelled $368,000 to the district in some years. But that number is not a flat yearly payout.
Buchanan said Nebraska’s state aid formula is complex, but he explained that equalization aid is a component of state aid and is determined by a district’s needs versus its resources. He said over the years, Raymond Central has received between $320,000 and $368,000. But in other years, like 2017-2018, Raymond Central received $0 in equalization aid.
“That was a year that (Raymond Central’s) valuation was a lot higher than its needs,” Buchanan said.
He said if the bond does not pass and the district retains its elementary schools, the district may not be able to continue to rely on the site allowance anyway. He said as the district’s property valuation rises and if it outpaces enrollment growth, the chance is there that the district would not receive the full site allowance.
“To say they might get it or they might get a part of it or some years not get any of it is probably the most accurate,” Buchanan said.
Public information meeting schedule
Three more public information meetings remain, starting Thursday evening, April 13 at Valparaiso Elementary from 5:30-6:30 p.m. and at the Raymond Fire Hall from 7:30-8:30 p.m. Another meeting will be held on Monday, April 17 in the high school building’s Mustang Room, with a tour starting at 6:30 p.m. and the meeting beginning at 7 p.m.