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School district considers options for Ely

By Staff | Oct 12, 2018

After a meeting last Thursday evening to discuss concerns relating to potential Ely Elementary campus expansion with the school’s neighbors, Rugby Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Mike McNeff recommended forming a citizens’ committee to look at options.

“I want to stress that this is in its infancy stage,” McNeff told the group of residents living near the Ely campus who met with him in the Rugby High School library. “There are no board members tonight; there are no city council members. It’s me, and I’m here to answer some questions, provide some information, and some facts as to our enrollment, and some of those things that our board is talking about.”

McNeff presented data that projected an increase in student population across all grades in the public school district to the attendees. The study, conducted by RSP and Associates of Kansas, showed enrollment increasing over the next four school years at Ely.

“This year, we were projecting 345 (elementary-grade students); that’s what came in; we’re right about 330 at Ely right now,” McNeff said.

McNeff attributed the lower enrollment total to families moving out of the district, possibly due to recent layoffs at Heart of America Medical Center.

Pointing to a chart detailing projected enrollment, he said, “If you look at future numbers, for ’19-20, (there will be) 351 students; 360 (in the 20-21 school year), so, that enrollment peak is right around 20-21,” McNeff noted.

“I would consider that, when we look at capacity concerns at Ely, anytime we’re over 300 kids at Ely, it’s a very concentrated space. What I mean by that is, over the past six years, we’ve added three section grade levels three teachers per grade level, and we’ve done that to three separate grade levels. So there are some things where you lose space.”

McNeff indicated increased enrollment has impacted the Ely building in a number of ways.

“We’ve taken away a counselor room, where kids would see a school counselor; we don’t have enough space for that; the counselor now has an office area. The science class, there was a 5th and 6th grade science area we’ve taken that away. That’s now a classroom area,” McNeff noted.

“This past year, since we’ve had the third section, we’ve taken away our computer lab space. Now, that’s a 4th grade classroom.”

McNeff pointed out changes in education over the past decades since the school was built also play a role in space concerns.

“If you go back into the early ’90s, late ’80s, special education wasn’t as robust as it is now,” McNeff explained. “There are a lot of different therapies that happen for kids, and rightly so. We have OT, PT, speech, and mental health therapies. They’ve expanded. Our special ed has taken over a larger classroom, and a couple of other spaces in the building, so there’s been that expansion, and that’s largely due to an increase in special ed caseloads,” McNeff noted.

McNeff said the study zeroed in on kindergarten enrollment numbers to project future class sizes.

“Based on this projection,” McNeff said of the data, “In the 19-20 school year, which is next year, we’re expecting between 55 and 60 students. Now this is just at Ely Elementary.”

Actual numbers, however, have been lower than projected.

“Again, this year, we’re a little off on the projection. We had fewer than 60, and we came in at just about 50 on that projection. So, it’s about 10 less than projected. We had some kids move out over the summer. So, that number didn’t hit 60, but, where do we start to split grade levels? ” McNeff asked. “Particularly, that k-2 level. We want to keep it at less than 20 (per class) if possible. So we have a really difficult situation when groups are coming in, grade levels are coming in at 50 kids, or 49, especially at that kindergarten age range, when you put 24 or 25 kids in one class.”

Ely’s neighbors aired their concerns at the meeting.

Many shared ideas for expanding the campus that would minimize the impact to their properties.

The current plans for expanding the school property would involve lots already owned by Rugby Public Schools.

Margaret Stadum suggested the expansion take place “on the west side of the playground; move the storage units across the street. Get zoning permission to put them in a residential area. And extend it all the way down to take the west fence out. Then, go down through that length.” Stadum also suggested making a two-story addition to the building to maximize space.

Attendee David Zwingel asked, “Are you still looking to expand west?”

McNeff said yes.

The meeting led to a decision to form a citizens’ committee to examine the issue, and the school board approved a motion to establish the committee in a regular meeting Tuesday. McNeff said he was looking to establish a 20-member group, two of whom would be school board members along with parents and community members.

McNeff told the Tribune the expansion would involve two lots already owned by RPS, and “we have a verbal agreement on the lot north of the bike racks. We hope to purchase that.”

As for the disparity between actual and projected enrollment numbers at Ely, McNeff expressed confidence the school’s enrollment would still increase as shown by the study.

“I’ll stick to those numbers,” he said.

McNeff said he hopes the new committee will find solutions to the many issues surrounding the expansion.

However, he emphasized, “This won’t be a quick fix.”

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