EFFINGHAM — While candidates for Unit 40 school board generally agree consolidating buildings might save the district money, some believe more time and further scrutiny may be needed.
Unit 40 has proposed a long-term plan that outlines the benefits of reducing its six buildings down to three. During the past election, voters turned down a proposed tax swap, which would have increased sales taxes in Effingham County by 1 percent while simultaneously providing the district enough money to consolidate its buildings and abating property owners' real estate taxes in the process.
It is an issue that will not go away. Superintendent Mark Doan has pointed to increasing costs to maintain the district's current buildings. Central Grade School has undergone more than $4 million in renovation costs while Effingham Junior High School has to be continually renovated. The latter was constructed in the late 1930s as part of the Work Progress Administration project under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
At a forum recently, eight candidates discussed the possibility of consolidating buildings, which would potentially include the construction of a new building.
Current school board member Jeff Michael said he would vote in favor of continued consolidation of Unit 40 schools, and noted he voted in support of the closure of Edgewood Grade School last year.
“We are currently sitting in a bomb shelter,” said Michael during the forum. “This is an old building, and it has a lot of issues.”
Michael said he would take another detailed look at the district's finances to ensure a consolidation down to three buildings — that would likely include the construction of one new building — makes sense financially.
“We would have to make sure we would save enough in operation expenses to construct a new building,” said Michael.
He acknowledged building consolidation has been an emotional issue, but said he has heard positive reports from students who transferred to remaining Unit 40 schools when Edgewood closed.
Newcomer Jane Willenborg said she generally supports building consolidation, but doesn't believe it should happen in the near future.
“I think I would wait and make do with what we have to see what happens with state funds,” she said.
Newcomer candidate Kathleen Smith said consolidation would be a difficult decision. Although Smith was hesitant about the Edgewood closure, she conceded it is nice having all the district's kids closer together. A consolidation would further support that, she added.
Peggy Campbell believes building consolidation would mean long-term savings for the district.
“With three buildings, you could cut out positions and save tax money,” said Campbell.
Incumbent Carol Ruffner, who lives in the Mason and Edgewood area of the county, said closing schools can be difficult.
“When I came onto the board to represent Mason and Edgewood, I saw the Mason school close,” she said. “When Edgewood closed, I cried a lot, but it worked. Kids are settling in well.”
Ruffner said the district needs to get down to three buildings someday. Mandatory Health Life Safety inspections leads to costly work, she added.
“This building costs us a lot of money,” said Ruffner, referring to Effingham Junior High School, where the forum was held. “We put a lot of money into it.”
Incumbent Todd Shaefer supports consolidation.
“I think getting down to three buildings would be tremendous for this community,” he said. “It is economy of scale. It would cut down on transportation, less administration and you can share facilities to some extent.”
Patty Russell said consolidation is a difficult decision, but she would support it if it proves to help students and save money.
“It pulls heartstrings shutting down smaller schools,” said Russell. “But budgets are budgets, and we need to save money. If that comes from consolidation, as bad as it sounds, I would give that one up.”