Shutting the doors: School board votes 5-2 to close Grantsdale Elementary School

Grantsdale Elementary School fourth-grade students Regan Luitjens, left, and Kayla Fisher cried on Monday night after they presented the Hamilton School Board with a petition, signed by all their classmates, requesting that their school not be closed. The girls will be a part of the last group of students at Grantsdale, as the board voted 5-2 to close the oldest continually operating school in the state and consolidate the students and staff with Daly Elementary next year due to a budget shortfall.

The oldest continuously operating school in Montana will shut its doors forever on June 7, the latest casualty of the Hamilton School District’s looming budget crisis.

Despite a last-minute emotional plea from teachers, parents, administrators and students, the Hamilton school board voted 5-2 on Monday night to close Grantsdale Elementary School, which first opened in 1889 and is home to the memories of countless thousands of Bitterroot Valley students who have trod its cozy halls for 124 straight years.

Due to a projected $371,000 shortfall, Hamilton School District superintendent Tom Korst recommended to the board earlier this year that the 86 students and staff at Grantsdale be consolidated with the larger Daly Elementary as a cost-saving measure.

Daly Elementary will be remodeled to accommodate the influx of students, a move officials believe will save the district $108,000 per year.

Monday night’s meeting was full of fireworks, including tears, tense exchanges between board members and passionate testimony both for and against the closure.

Before the vote, the entire staff of Grantsdale stood before the board while third-grade teacher Kimberly Downing read a prepared statement on behalf of her coworkers.

“If you close Grantsdale tonight, whichever one of you comes to tell our students about it tomorrow needs to make sure you do not tell our children they are making a sacrifice to save the rest of the district,” Dowling said. “Many of them already make sacrifices every day, whether it’s divorce, moving, health concerns in their family, worrying if they have enough food or if they’ll get to keep their house. For many, school is the one stable place in their daily lives. They believe their school is a valued place.

“If you close Grantsdale tonight, please identify your decision for what it truly is. This is not a step for district savings. This is the first of many expensive steps toward the 20-year plan that has not been fully explained to the parents of the district.”

The statement, which was met with applause from the standing-room-only crowd, also said that the staff of Grantsdale would respect any decision by the board.

The most touching portion of the meeting came when several fourth-grade students at Grantsdale - Kayla Fisher, Trinity Two-Feathers and Regan Luitjens - stood up and presented a colorful, 10-foot-long petition signed by all 86 students asking the board to reconsider the decision.

“We’re here to ask you to please not close our school,” Fisher said, drawing another round of applause. “We love Grantsdale School.”

“It’s a special school,” added her mother, Cassandra Fisher. “Please don’t take something you can’t ever get back.”

Korst, during his presentation on the plan, said that the quality of education at Daly Elementary will remain the same and will provide students and staff with increased safety, security and usable space.

He also said that the transition to middle school for all fifth-grade students, as well as the professional collaboration of teachers in grades 2-5, will be enhanced.

“This is a very difficult decision,” Korst said. “Nobody wants to be a part of it. But I have a responsibility to the community and the taxpayers to have a long-term plan for the district.”

Korst reiterated that the bottom line for the district is that if Grantsdale continues to operate, $108,000 worth of cuts would have to be made elsewhere, whether it be in staffing levels or programs in other schools. Korst said that all non-retiring staff at Grantsdale will have a job elsewhere in the district next year, unless there is something in the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the teachers’ union and the district that he isn’t aware of.

Trustee Bonnie Wickham said that she wished money wasn’t the reason that Grantsdale had to be closed.

“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be sitting here because we would have all the money we need for education,” she said. “But unfortunately, we don’t. It’s not easy. I would love for this to be about something other than money. It seems cold. But I’m sorry, the financial aspect comes into it. We have to work within those parameters. I know where my heart is, but I’m sorry.”

Trustee Corrine Gantt, who voted against the closure along with Nancy Roberts, said the issue has caused divisiveness in the community.

“Before this happened, the teachers here in Hamilton had the perception that we were all in this together,” she said. “I’m really sorry this has turned into a morale-buster. I’ve never seen morale as poor as it is now. It really bothers me that we have this dissent and I really apologize. If our community supported us and we could pass levies, we wouldn’t be here.”

Trustee Jim Shea wanted to quell any rumors that there were secret plans in the works.

“This is the result of six years of many, many meetings,” he said. “I’ve heard these rumors that we have secret plans. It’s not a secret, but it is a plan. Now we are going to be working on a future plan.”

Claire Kemp, co-owner of Bella Boutique in Hamilton and the parent of a student who attended Grantsdale in the past, told the board she has been getting a lot of feedback from teachers and parents about the consolidation.

“Where I work is sort of gossip central,” she said. “I would never name names, but I have heard some really unhappy teachers. They are considering leaving the district. The dissent is upsetting to me, and the feeling I’m getting is it’s not a happy bunch. So I’m wondering if you have polled the teachers and asked them how they feel about all this.”

School board chairman David Bedey said he had in fact talked with many teachers about the issue.

“I think in some ways, it will be better,” he said. “I think we will continue to provide an excellent education for our students. The fact of the matter is this district has a lot of unfunded priorities. Our professional staff compensation is abysmally low. In order to make any moves on that whatsoever, we are going to have to require a lot of belt-tightening. And that’s important to attract new faculty and retain the ones we have. Any organization that doesn’t keep the most important asset, the employees, will eventually fail.”

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The meeting veered off-topic and became tense for a few minutes when Bedey and Gantt got into a little spat after Gantt accused the chairman of advocating for private charter schools at the state level, which Bedey strongly denied.

Next, former longtime Grantsdale and Daly teacher Patty Holmes, who has been a vocal opponent of the closure, told the board that the teachers wouldn’t be able to provide an adequate level of service to kids who are struggling with math and reading.

“Bigger isn’t always better,” she said. “I think you are making a mistake. You can’t put them all in there. We’re only talking about saving $100,000 out of a $9 million budget.”

John Stromberg, a math teacher at Hamilton Middle School, said that the $108,000 that the district would save in the consolidation might save the jobs of other teachers down the road.

“Some people are saying $100,000 out of a $9 million budget isn’t a lot, but that’s the salary of roughly three teachers,” he said. “To me, that’s a big deal. So we have to think about how this affects the other schools in the district, too.”

Hamilton resident Brett Calder told the board that they should postpone the decision to see if the state Legislature will provide enough funding to save the school.

“I think there just might be a snowball’s chance in hell if you give it this year,” he said.

However, the board ended the meeting by voting to close the school and chairman Bedey summarily adjourned the session. It was an anti-climactic end to a drama-filled two-hour meeting, and many Grantsdale teachers slowly filed out of the room in stunned silence, while others dried their eyes with tissues.

“Well, it was the longest continually operating school in Montana,” Calder said as he rose from his seat and left the room.

A copy of the statement to the school board from the staff and faculty at Grantsdale School can be found online with this story at www.ravallirepublic.com.

The district will decide what to do with the 5-acre Grantsdale School property once a title search is completed to determine ownership rights.

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.