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News Story Reignites School Closure Issue in District 11

Officials insist no closures planned


Controversy erupted like a backed-up geyser in District 11 last week less than 48 hours after voter approval of the $26.9 million mil levy that will bring desperately needed revenues into the district's 68 schools.

The furor was prompted by a KRDO Channel 13 news story that showed D-11 board member Sherry Butcher and interim Superintendent Norm Ridder saying that passage of the mil levy doesn't guarantee that "inefficient and ineffective" schools won't be closed.

D-11 officials had warned in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 7 vote that failure to pass the mil levy would mean an $8million to 12 million shortfall that would force the district to close between five and 17 struggling schools.

A number of D-11 parents devoted hundreds of hours in recent months to promoting the mil levy, believing that its passage would keep their neighborhood schools open.

The KRDO story, however, showed Butcher saying, "For all the noise and energy that went into people not wanting their schools closed, we had a lot of people saying we shouldn't keep inefficient and ineffective schools open."

Footage showed Ridder seeming to leave the closure option open as well. "I don't want to come out and say that we absolutely will or will not close any schools," he said. "We may decide that [closures are] the best way to be effective."

The story infuriated opponents of school closure.

"This wounds all of us who spent the past few weeks attending meetings and pounding in illegally placed 'Yes on 3B' signs," said Stratton Elementary parent and school activist Toby Norton. "Apparently, we're going to have to continue fighting for our existence."

Ridder and Butcher spent much of the past week ducking flak and insisting that their position was misconstrued in the KRDO story.

Explosive issue

School closure has evolved into the single most volatile issue in District 11. The school board voted 6-1 in February to close five small, "inefficient" schools and move the teachers, staff and 1,230 students to larger schools in adjacent neighborhoods. The closures would have saved the district $1.19 in annual operating costs.

A firestorm of community protest forced the board to reverse that decision and seek savings elsewhere. Ridder believes the KRDO flap to be an extension of the February furor.

"It was really [brought] home to me during the mil levy campaign how passionately people feel about their neighborhood school," he said in a Tuesday interview. "When they hear the phrase 'efficient and effective' -- the rationale used for school closure last February -- they understandably jump to the conclusion that we're considering closures again.

"I can't speak for the board," he said, "but I'm opposed to any closures. It is essential that we make every school, employee and department more efficient and effective, but closing a school destroys the heart of a community. I will fight to keep that from happening anywhere in this district."

Butcher insists she shares that commitment.

"I'm a huge proponent of neighborhood schools," she said. "It's our responsibility to taxpayers to operate efficiently, but our top priority is to make struggling schools more effective, not to close them," she said.

Butcher insists she is "100 percent behind" such options as turning Ivywild Elementary into a K-8 school, making Midland Elementary a science and math magnet school, turning some portions of underpopulated schools into community centers and initiating adult literacy programs to help struggling schools pay their way.

Damage control

Ridder and Butcher both criticized the KRDO story.

"For some reason," said Ridder, "the Channel 13 reporter (Tak Landrock) pushed me to the hilt to say something about closing schools. I got so uncomfortable with his line of questioning that I finally asked him what his agenda was."

Butcher complains that she was interviewed by KRDO's Barron Pittinger, but the story was edited and produced by Tak Landrock, to whom she has never spoken.

"They used sound bites of what I said about the need for efficiency," Butcher complained, "but they left out what I said about the mil levy funds giving us a wonderful opportunity to find ways to keep schools open."

KRDO news director Dave Rose rejects suggestions that the story had any agenda. "We gave them plenty of opportunity to say, 'Hell no, under no circumstances will we close schools,' " he said. "We merely indicated that they are leaving the door open to that."

Rose readily provided the Independent with a transcript of the news story.

It opens with Channel 13 anchorpersons John Karroll and Kelly Schulz saying, "Voters gave District 11 a major windfall, but some neighborhood schools may still close their doors. News 13's Tak Landrock has been looking into the speculation -- and has the story."

The piece cuts to a commercial that ran during the mil levy campaign and shows Superintendent Ridder saying the district has a new attitude of collaboration and cooperation. Landrock follows by saying: "But on Tuesday night, Sherry Butcher, a board member for District 11, said the passage of this initiative doesn't mean inefficient schools will remain open."

Butcher is shown observing that as many people want inefficient schools closed as want them kept open, and she is followed by Ridder saying that he can't absolutely say that no schools will ever be closed.

"What do you think voters will say after they have given extra money to the district and still see their neighborhood school closed?" Landrock asked Ridder, to which Ridder replied: "I really can't respond to that. I don't believe that's going to be true."

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