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A school with no students

Town left with more questions than answers

NEWCASTLE — “Why did the men in purple close my school?”

Sarah Smith asked her father this question after a June board meeting that closed the preschool she attended last year and was planning to attend again in just two short months.

John Smith didn’t have any answers.

After that fateful meeting, he drove his 4-year-old daughter and wife, Carrie, back to Newcastle, stopping at the local park to take pause and try to wrap their thoughts around what just occurred.

At the park, Smith was approached by a mother also giving her children some space to run and play. She had just moved to town.

“What’s the school like?” she asked Smith.”We’re thinking about sending our kids there.”

Now, several months after those heart-breaking questions, he’s still not sure what to make of the decision by the Hartington-Newcastle School Board to close the school site at Newcastle.

Originally, the school closure was slated for discussion at the school board meeting in May.

“We were told on a Friday and the meeting was on a Monday,” said School Secretary Jessica Gotch. “It was the first we knew we were up for discussion.”

She was able to push the closure agenda until the June meeting so the community could be represented.

“At that meeting, it was packed,” Gotch said. “I was blown away by the support. Even those who had no kids in school or send their kids elsewhere, everyone had a great reason for keeping the school.”

Smith was one of those who spoke up but it seemed as if his impassioned speech fell on deaf ears, he said, with board members' body language and lack of eye contact speaking volumes.

“It took them about two minutes to say, ‘No,’ ” Gotch said. and four went to Wynot. Hartington-Newcastle received students as well.

Some of the affected preschoolers now go to daycare while many other parents chose to keep them at home.

John and Carrie Smith decided to homeschool Sarah this year.

He said they didn’t feel like they had much choice and weren’t willing to put their 4-yearold daughter on a van to travel more than 50 roundtrip miles to school and back each day.

Many of Newcastle’s 272 residents are still sad, upset and even bitter about the decision but not willing to make public statements at this time, Gotch and Smith said, with uncertainty looming about the future of the Newcastle school building.

Newcastle village clerk Amanda Kelly said she hasn’t heard anything from school officials.

“I have my own ideas on what I’d like to see happen,” she said. “It’s a good facility and needs to be utilized.”

For now, the hardest thing to get used to is the quiet, Gotch said.

Her desk, stationed near the front entrance, overlooks the library. She sighs as she surveys row upon row of books that have yet to be cracked open this year.

Now she’s answering the phone and sending files, keeping the school’s office afloat.

The only other person she sees regularly is Kevin Whelchel, the janitor, who cleans and maintains a school with no students.

“Everything is kind of in limbo,” she said. “We’re waiting around for the town and school board to discuss options. ... We’re stuck wondering what’s going to happen to this place?”

She said she can’t see the logic behind the school board’s decision and it’s hard to stay positive.

”It’s embarrassing to work here,” Gotch said. “The community is upset and I don’t have any answers.”

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