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HNS Board debates closing Newcastle school

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HARTINGTON — A handful of Newcastle residents listened Monday as Hartington-Newcastle School Board members discussed the possibility of closing Newcastle Elementary School this year.

Supt. A.J. Johnson said the issue is being discussed now because enrollment numbers have fallen and both teachers at the Newcastle facility have resigned.

As of right now, there are just three first grade students enrolled at Newcastle for next year and no kindergarten students, Johnson said. There are 13 students enrolled for preschool at Newcastle next year.

Newcastle resident and long-time Newcastle school employee, Jessica Gotch, addressed the board at the start of Monday's meeting.

She and her husband, Bryan, have been very involved with the school and community. Bryan was a School Board member at both Newcastle and then Hartington-Newcastle. He currently serves as the Mayor of Newcastle.

"We consider ourselves extremely invested in our community. I would like to take this opportunity to give you some perspective from someone who has experienced every step of the consolidation between our schools first hand," she said. "I am in no way going to say that my perspective is right and yours is wrong. I simply would like you to consider a perspective that I feel is very much underrepresented on this board."

The Newcastle community sacrificed a lot to consolidate with Hartington, she said.

"We lost our mascot, school colors, grades 5-12, and our jobs. Those of us who Supt. Anderson hired back, months later, started at base pay and our teachers, who held over 30 teaching years each in Newcastle were allowed to bring in six years' experience," she said. "Our teachers were given a one-year contract, which also made us feel the first year was not a consolidation, but a probation period. This new beginning followed one of the hardest years of our lives. We lost students, we lost friends, we lost community members, and ultimately we lost our school."

Even though Newcastle residents found themselves in a tough situation, they tried as best they could to make the best of things, Gotch said.

"The few who were hired after the consolidation had the job of opening the doors in Newcastle and starting again. We have worked so hard to make whatever we had in Newcastle, the best it could be. We started the consolidation at Newcastle with high hopes of making things work seamlessly between our schools. I honestly do not know how we as a staff could have done any more to run our building more efficiently.

The consolidation started off with some big challenges as class sizes were smaller than expected and continued to dwindle.

"The first couple of years we struggled to build class sizes. The school board at these particular times took grade four, then three, then two. I found out in July 2020 that my child would not have a second grade class in Newcastle for August 2020."

Gotch said she wants to work with the HNS School Administration to make things better.

"We as a Newcastle community pride ourselves with "rolling with the punches," but quite honestly, I feel we have had enough," she said. "Decisions have been made and delivered to us with short or no notice and we are expected to understand and comply time and time again. It needs to be different, you need to be different," she said. "There are many successful consolidations in our area. I have yet to see one of them run the way ours has."

She said she is frustrated because the Board continues to try and figure out how to add more classrooms to a crowded Hartington facility, while the Newcastle facility sits nearly empty.

"This board has continually moved more classes out of an underpopulated building with 14 large, empty classrooms in Newcastle, and crammed them into overpopulated classrooms in Hartington. It isn't helping either site, you need to do something different," she said.

"You can sit there and say the numbers in Newcastle don't make sense, or the feasibility isn't there, but in reality, you as a board continue to fail the Newcastle community, and this consolidation, with a lack of effort, presence and support to help us grow along with you," Gotch said.

HNS Board President Jason Dendinger said the Board did not want to move classes from Newcastle to Hartington, but the numbers just didn't add up.

"We wanted the enrollment to stay high, but a lot of times we had no choice but to cut a grade because the enrollment kept dropping," he said. "The number one issue here is enrollment. You don't have the numbers."

The issue will be discussed again at the June 14 Board meeting. Dendinger said he hopes to get more public input from both Hartington and Newcastle residents at that time.

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