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Sullivan County district weighs closing small high school

Updated: January 2, 2014 6:31AM



DUGGER — Supporters of a small high school in southwestern Indiana believe many of its students will leave the district if it is closed, while others argue budget troubles leave the district no other options.

The Northeast Sullivan School Board could vote Monday night on whether to shut down the 172-student Union Junior-Senior High School in the town of Dugger, leaving the rural district with a single high school.

The district has lost about 150 students in the past five years, leading to a $1.8 million, or about 16 percent, decline in annual funding, the Tribune-Star newspaper of Terre Haute reported.

Greg Ellis, of the group Save UHS, said a survey found nearly all of Union High’s students would transfer to neighboring districts rather than travel 20 miles to Northeast Sullivan’s other high school, the 500-student North Central Junior-Senior High School near Farmersburg.

The closure could mean a loss of $1.85 million in funding for the district, and Ellis said Union High supporters would rather try to find solutions that “will help every school in the corporation and hopefully be a success story.”

About 20 teaching jobs have been cut in recent years and the district has dropped art, music, physical education and band programs at the elementary schools.

Superintendent Mark Baker said the district can’t cut further and must consider a reorganization plan that would “get more kids into fewer buildings.”

Leslie Hawker, chairwoman of the group Save NESC, said no one wants to Union High closed, but that it is the most fiscally responsible decision.

“If we do nothing, we are finished — the corporation will go down,” she said.

In 2011, the General Assembly intentionally eliminated extra grants to the smallest of Indiana’s nearly 300 school districts and ended guarantees that funding wouldn’t decline. Since then, small school districts in western Indiana’s Parke County and southwestern Indiana Posey County have merged. The Muncie School Board voted this month to close Southside High School, leaving the city with a single high school.

Union High supporters say they’re worried about the impact the school’s closing would have on the 900-person town of Dugger, about 30 miles south of Terre Haute. Some have raised the possibility of the Northeast Sullivan district consolidating with Sullivan County’s other school district.

Southwest Sullivan Superintendent Chris Stitzlem said the district’s board members have shown little interest in a merger.

Hawker said she knows school board members face a difficult decision and blamed much of the district’s budget troubles on changes by the General Assembly.

She said legislators should to stop “strangling rural school districts.”



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