Gwinn board votes to close elementary school

GWINN – After a contentious meeting and a 5-1 vote, the Gwinn school board decided to close Gilbert Elementary School during its Monday meeting.

Trustee Bill Nordeen was the lone dissenting vote on the motion, which was made by Trustee Ron Libey and seconded by Trustee Michelle Dolby.

With 10 more classrooms than Gilbert Elementary, Gwinn Area Community Schools Superintendent Kim Tufnell said K.I. Sawyer Elementary was better suited to house all 575 elementary students within the district.

The move will help eliminate $475,000 from the districts operating budget – which has a roughly $1.2 million shortfall going into next year – since it will allow for the layoff of four teaching and one administrative positions.

“I think it’s fiscally irresponsible of us to do two buildings, when all (the students) fit at Sawyer,” Tufnell said.

Nordeen expressed several concerns with the board’s decision, as well as new information brought to the board Monday on Sawyer Elementary that likely helped sway the vote in favor of closing Gilbert.

The board held a budget work session Friday in which Tufnell said the district had a lease on Sawyer Elementary.

However, she informed the board Monday that the district had a quit claim deed with conditional use provisions – including using the building only for educational purposes and using the building in its entirety.

As a former county commissioner, Nordeen said he is very familiar with the reuse of Sawyer after the Air Force closed its base there in 1995.

“I was involved in a lot of this reuse of Sawyer and they always had deeds with reversionary clauses in them – that’s what they do,” Nordeen said. “So when I heard the lease on Friday, I was shocked, to tell you the truth. And now to find out that it wasn’t even true makes me question everything we hear, so I got a little problem with that.”

Nordeen also expressed disbelief that the current student population would not fit inside Gilbert Elementary, saying it “defied common sense” that a student population that has 330 fewer students than the district had when the base was still open would not fit in the same school.

“Back when the Air Force was here, we had 850 students in (the high school), in this structure, without the addition of the new building,” Nordeen said. “We had 650 in the Gilbert building. That’s 1,500 students … now we have 1,170 – 330 students less and people are saying you can’t fit ’em.”

Tufnell and Libey disagreed with Nordeen’s assessments. “You’re talking about a different population under different rules today than you ever had back then,” Libey said, citing the use of sensory rooms and more rigorous laws concerning special education that require the schools to use more space for fewer students.

The crowd gathered inside the Gwinn High School library murmured throughout discussion on the closure of Gilbert Elementary, with applause erupting every few minutes.

Many people spoke out at the end of the meeting, some to express support for Sawyer Elementary, others to decry the closing of yet another building in the school district.

Some called the decision “irresponsible” and said they felt “blind-sided.”

“I hope Marquette (school district) is not in the parking lot, handing out applications,” one person said.

Board Vice President Ruth Spade did not attend the meeting.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.