After much protest from area residents opposed to the plan, Bettendorf’s school board on Monday voted to close Thomas Jefferson Elementary School and send its students to Mark Twain Elementary School, a change scheduled to take effect during the 2019-2020 school year.
The measure was approved unanimously by the board. Ahead of the vote, Bettendorf School Superintendent Mike Raso sought to ease some of the concerns raised in recent weeks, saying the changes are a financially responsible move to meet the goal of providing a quality education to its students.
Raso also recalled his own experiences as a student — from playing baseball with schoolmates on the blacktop behind Monroe Elementary School to making out with his high school sweetheart on a bus during a school trip to Canada — as evidence that the memories and relationships forged at school matter more than where they occur.
“It is the people and the relationships that created the laughter, the warm feelings and even sometimes the tears,” he said.
The change comes as school district officials say they are facing a challenge of stagnant student enrollment paired with increased costs to run six different elementary schools. They have also billed the shuttering of Thomas Jefferson as a way to save taxpayers money in the long run by reducing year-to-year operational costs and saving money on the school’s overdue maintenance needs.
Critics, meanwhile, have questioned the district’s spending on new construction projects and called on board members to keep the doors open.
Thomas Jefferson was constructed nearly 70 years ago, and district officials have identified nearly $1.9 million in maintenance and construction needs, including a security upgrade to its front entrance, a new roof and the renovation of several spaces within the building.
The closure of Thomas Jefferson is expected to reduce the district’s annual operational costs by roughly $440,000, according to data provided by school officials.
Most of those savings would come from cutting back the number of district employees, including teaching assistants, cafeteria workers and janitors. The district also expects shuttering Thomas Jefferson would save money on utility bills.
Last year, Thomas Jefferson enrolled 141 students from preschool through 5th grade, the lowest number of any of the district’s schools. District officials noted that the enrollment at Mark Twain would remain the smallest in the district after combining the schools.
As they move toward consolidating the schools, district officials are also working out the details of a plan to erect a new building for Mark Twain. That project carries an estimated price tag of $16.5 million and is currently scheduled to be finished by October 2019.
Money for the construction project at Mark Twain is to come from selling bonds against the sales tax revenues that the school district is projected to receive over the next decade. The district plans to begin selling those bonds early next year.
On Monday, several area residents spoke out against the closure. Among them was Heather Wade, who asked some board members whether they would have been elected had they not run on a platform to keep all of the district’s schools open.
“I would like you to make good on that promise,” she said.
Addressing Wade’s point, board member Andrew Champion said he campaigned for office to stop the closure of any of the district’s schools, but came to realize that the “financial aspect of this is not sustainable.”
“I don’t want to be in this position,” Champion said of the decision to close Thomas Jefferson. “But unfortunately, that’s where we’re at right now.”
On a similar note, board president Gordon Staley said the measure “makes financial sense for the whole district” and would “put the district on the road to be successful in the future.”
Separately, district officials also advanced a measure Monday to ask voters to approve a bond sale that would be used to pay for several projects outlined in a six-year plan to spend $63 million on school facility upgrades. Doing so would require approval by slightly more than 60 percent of registered voters.