After approving a capital improvement plan in early 2012, Carbon School District officials began public meetings last week to gauge reaction to the possible purchase of property and subsequent building of a new junior high school in Helper.
The meetings in Price and East Carbon took on a Tale of Two Cities feel, with Price attendees not opposing the idea. In East Carbon however, the closing of their high school in 2005 continued to dominate most citizens' viewpoint.
"(The board) has been wrestling with this decision for years now," said Carbon School Board President Wayne Woodward, who opened both meetings. "The board is aware that we cannot consider significant capital improvements unless we decide what to do with Helper Junior High School."
After introducing the board, Woodward turned the floor over to Carbon School's Financial Director Darren Lancaster, who detailed the board's financial options. His presentation provided numbers relative to closing the school, keeping it open and doing nothing, and replacing the Depression era facility.
According to Lancaster, funding is currently being provided to the district for HJHS through the Necessarily Existent Small Schools (NESS) program. Small schools in rural locations are provided with the funding to assist with the most basic of educational programs.
To receive the funding, a school must have a relatively small population (450 or less) and be at least an hour and 15 minutes away from the nearest alternative school. While the second requirement would disqualify Helper from consideration, they have been receiving the funding based on several additional factors. Lancaster reported that Helper has been getting NESS monies because the school district has already consolidated to the maximum.
"If we close or if we rebuild, we are going to lose the Necessarily Existent Small Schools funding," Lancaster reported. "If we rebuild, we have shown the state that we can make a significant investment in the life of those students. The only option which would allow us to keep the funding would be to stay in the building and even then we are at the mercy of the legislature. Long term, because of its age, staying in the building just isn't an option."
The business administrator then demonstrated that consolidating the schools could give the district a $480,000 per year savings. However, that savings would be offset by the loss of revenue from NESS. According to Lancaster, the savings provided by closing the school would be negligible.
"But you're talking apples and oranges here," said East Carbon resident David Fryer. "You already told us that if you build the new school you have shown the state that you don't need the funding. So you are losing that money regardless."
Lancaster did not disagree with Fryer and continued to explain the costs associated with this project. If the schools were to consolidate, he said, Mont Harmon would balloon to 700 students, possibly growing to 900 based on current elementary numbers.
Construction costs remain one of the few real unknowns concerning a project that will not begin for at least four years, according to the board. The projected cost of a new junior high in Helper is between $7- and $9 million, $4- or $5 million of which will come directly from district coffers. Lancaster explained that the district would pull about half of the cost from capital improvement savings, relying on a bond election for the balance. The Carbon District currently has two bonds they are paying on. One will be paid off in 2016 and the other in 2022, allowing for additional funds to be paid toward the new school without raising taxes.
Having learned their lesson by building the district's newest elementary too small at Bruin Point, Carbon plans to erect at 40,000 square foot junior high capable of housing 300 students.
Fryer then commented, "Basically what you are telling us is that the $370,000 you are getting for Helper Junior High, which was built in 1936 and is ready to fall down, will be taken away if you build a new school. You are also telling us that if you don't build it that the legislature will take it away anyway, so that $370,000 is gone regardless."
Lancaster stipulated that while Mr. Fryer has summed up the situation well, the point is rapidly approaching where action will have to be taken at Helper Junior High and the district is holding these meetings in order to make sure they are informed when that time arrives.
Carbon District Superintendent Steve Carlsen addressed audiences in both Price and East Carbon following Lancaster's presentation.
According to Carlsen, the board approved a plan in January to move the district forward concerning capital improvement. He commented that NESS funding received a large push during last year's legislative session, increasing the fund by $2 million. More than $23 million is paid out to rural schools via NESS every year.
"Helper Junior High has been a very functional building, but as we have said, it is a two story structure built in the 1930s. It has no air conditioning and can be quite hot for students," said Carlsen. "It has served our students well and student scores reflect that."
Carlsen reported that HJH's Criterion Reference Testing shows that the school is performing very well in math, science and language arts. There was a dip for most schools in math following last year's adoption of the "common core." However with that exception, Helper has consistently out-performed state averages.
The superintendent also brought up Bruin Point's achievements, most recently as the highest scoring Title One School in Utah. The Title One designation is given to a school when their population includes a certain amount of families with low income. Every elementary Carbon District school is considered Title One.
"Bruin Point has great teachers and according to Mrs. Jewkes a great amount of volunteer service," explained Carlsen. "It is such a wonderful testament to see a small school with one class in each grade do so well. That is what we are relying on and hoping for, that a new building will help us proceed and increase education."
For most at the East Carbon session, the ramifications of closing a school dominated public comment.
"I've lived here long enough to know what school system means to our community. When East Carbon High School was destroyed and that's my word," said former Carbon County Sheriff Jim Robertson. "It tore the heart out of this community and if you don't live here or it hasn't happened to you, you can't imagine how that feels. In my view, you don't tear down schools and go somewhere else. I hope you will take that into consideration before you close any other school."
Most comments from the small city echoed Robertson's. David Fryer was the most notable exception.
"I'm just the opposite of Sheriff Robertson, I say tear the school down today and move them all to Mont Harmon. Bring in those little buildings and have done with it. All you have is a money pit in Helper. Nobody was concerned about what we needed out here when your predecessors tore our school down," he said. "Nobody was concerned that there was plenty of room here to build a new high school on land the district owned. They were so brazen, they tore our school down and then continued to receive NESS funding for a building that wasn't even on the property."
According to Lancaster, the district was guaranteed two years of NESS funding following the closure of East Carbon High School. He also stated that Helper would most likely not receive the same consideration if the district did decide to tear the junior high down.
When asked why the district has plans to build a new school in Helper after tearing down a similar size school in East Carbon, the answer was simple.
"Test scores," said Barry Deeter, who had voted to keep East Carbon High open in 2005. "Where you see Bruin Point in the high 80th percentile, East Carbon was between 25 and 30."