By Pat Jenkins
The message for Eatonville School District officials was clear: Improve your financial house, but leave Columbia Crest Elementary School alone.
About 100 people attended a one-hour public meeting hosted by the School Board last Wednesday for citizen input on fixing the district’s budget problems. Of the roughly two-dozen speakers who took their turn with the microphone, all addressed the option of possibly closing Columbia Crest as a money-saving move. And all of them opposed the idea.
Comments generally focused potential impacts on students of switching to other schools and the loss that would be felt in the surrounding Ashford-area community if Columbia Crest’s 62-year run as a local education institution came to an end.
The board and district officials are grappling with budget shortfalls. Potential cuts in spending include a proposal to close Columbia Crest, which district officials say would save $500,000 to $700,000. Other possible cuts include layoffs and closing the swimming pool at Eatonville High School.
The board expects to vote in late April on what budget-cutting actions to take. The final budget will be approved in July.
Several people at last week’s meeting in the high school auditorium used “devastated” in their description of the effect on students and families if Columbia Crest is closed. They said children would feel displaced and lose a feeling of close-to-home, personalized education. Criticism also was leveled at longer bus rides that students would face if forced to attend other schools in the district.
Other impacts were predicted, too, including homes in an already hurting housing market becoming less marketable with no nearby elementary school to attract buyers with young children. And Angela Wohl, president of Columbia Crest’s PTO,warned that future school district levies “might not pass” if enough voters are upset enough by a closure to vote no in retaliation.
Katie Hilliger, a former Columbia Crest student who now attends the high school, said closing her old elementary school would be the equivalent of “removing the hart of the Ashford community.”
James Bell, who recently moved his family to Ashford and has young children who hope to attend Columbia Crest, urged the School Board to avoid doing what he experienced as a boy in Minnesota, where communities “just died” after schools closed.
“I know you need money to operate the district,” he told board members, “but there will always be money problems.”
Kim Henley, who has four kids in school, noted long bus rides are a problem throughout the rural district, not just for Columbia Crest students. None of the possible solutions to the district’s budget issu3es “will work for everyone,” she said.
Board member Paulette Gilliardi thanked the audience, and anyone who has sent letters or e-mails, for helping the board with “a challenging decision.” She also encouraged citizens to contact state legislators about improving state funding of education.