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McClellan: Small town could lose its blue ribbon school

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National Blue Ribbon Schools

The small southwestern Illinois town of Sorento — legally, a village — was founded in 1872 and perhaps has seen better days, but maybe not much better. It has always been a dot on the map about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis. Not much is going on, and that is the way the residents want it. Sorento is for people who like living in very small towns.

That life has suddenly gotten stressful. A school superintendent in Greenville — a much larger city of approximately 7,000 people — has announced his intention to close Sorento’s grade school, one of three elementary schools in the Bond County School District No. 2. The other elementary schools are in Pocahontas and Greenville. The children in Sorento would be bused to one of the other two schools. Currently, 107 kids are enrolled at the Sorento school, 143 at Pocahontas and 781 elementary school students at Greenville, which is also home to the district high school.

Superintendent Wesley Olson says that shutting down the Sorento school would save the district about $125,000 annually in operational costs and $274,000 annually in reduced staff. Five teaching positions could be eliminated.

The district is far from wealthy, but it is not in dire straits, either. The board has approved a new athletic field for the district’s high school at an estimated cost of $1.4 million and is considering a gymnasium and cafe that would come in at more than $4 million.

These are things that would improve the quality of the high school experience, and everybody in the district goes to the same high school, so I am not second-guessing the board’s priorities. Nor would I question that the district is hard-pressed financially. Like many rural school districts, it is struggling with low tax rates and declining population. The nearby town of New Douglas in an adjoining district lost its school in 2015. School closures are happening.

For years and years there have been rumblings in the Bond County district. In the midst of a financial crisis 40 years ago, the district threatened to cut or eliminate music, art and sports and the schools in Pocahontas and Sorento unless a bond issue was passed. It passed.

Just a couple of years ago, there was renewed talk about doing something with Sorento.

You see, the problem is not completely financial. Superintendent Olson talks about “an equity issue.”

For instance, there are 13 children in kindergarten at Sorento. There are 72 in kindergarten at the Greenville school.

“If you have 13 children in one class, and then you have 25 children in another class in the same district, I would say the experience for the children is totally different,” he said. “We would like to equalize that.”

He said the district does not have the money to cut class sizes for everybody.

To the people in Sorento, their school is being punished for its success. In 2011, it was named a National Blue Ribbon School.

A couple of years ago, there was more talk about equity. Maybe borders should be shifted to equalize things. Many kids in the district don’t live in any of the towns, but in outlying areas. Perhaps they should be shifted around. An open enrollment policy was considered. Parents could pick their children’s school.

Before that could be given a fair chance, COVID-19 came. Kids went to virtual learning.

Last month, the district announced hearings to close Sorento school. Three such hearings are required by state law. The community learned about it, ironically, at the Christmas concert which is held at the school. Everyone goes to the concert, I was told. It is an example of how the school is the heart of the town.

Shortly thereafter, an emergency meeting was held at the fire department. The place was packed. People understood the gravity of the situation. The town itself was under threat. Who would buy a house in a town with no school? What would be done with the abandoned school building on Main Street? Stephanie Gerl, the only Sorento resident on the School Board, presided at the meeting. She is a native of Sorento and commutes to her job as a nurse at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. She has two kids at the school.

Tasks were assigned. Arguments had to be marshaled to present to other board members. Don Wall, another Sorento native and a University of Illinois alum, was in charge of figuring out the financial aspects. Legal issues were turned over to Melissa Goymerac. She is a federal public defender who commutes to St. Louis. Legal issues? “Nothing is off the table,” she told me. She has three kids at the school. Interestingly, she moved to Sorento for the lifestyle and the school.

“If I had thought they were going to close the school, I’d have bought a place in Red Bud,” she said.

The first spurt of energy was successful. The board had originally intended to rush through the three required meetings in December. They rescheduled the final meeting to Jan. 12.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Olsen played the part of Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He can seem pompous. After our first conversation, he sent me an email and signed it, “Professionally.” But in a later conversation, he said he understood why people were upset and he acknowledged that closing a school can greatly damage a community. He said he was from a small town in northern Illinois and he understood.

“Nobody wants to close a school,” he said.

He said that Wednesday’s hearing was strictly a hearing and he did not expect a decision to be made until the board meeting the following week and maybe not even then.

He said he agreed that closing a school should be a last resort, but he said the equity issue was a real problem.

He sounded like a man with a full plate. He said the learning loss from COVID was very real, and now COVID doesn’t seem to be over. There is emergency money coming in right now, but that won’t last forever, he said.

I didn’t argue, but I thought about all the kids at Sorento who are suddenly facing a huge disruption on top of everything else.

The people I met with in Sorento last week are deeply suspicious of Olson and the board. One of the school’s two ovens has already been removed. A broken window hasn’t been replaced. When fiber cable came to Sorento this past summer, it was not put into the school. All these things are signs, they told me, that the decision to close the school was made behind closed doors long ago.

By the way, Goymerac moved to Sorento from Ballwin. Maybe she represents a possible future for rural America. Such a future would have its own problems, to be sure, but an influx of people would reverse the decline.

I think about all the kids in St. Louis I’ve written about who shoot each other because one lives on 22nd Street and the other lives on 25th Street. Then those kids go prison and meet their former enemies and realize they have everything in common with them. They are, in fact, kids from the same place.

I have a sinking feeling that the good people of Sorento are about to be victims of the rural equivalent of a drive-by shooting, and that someday the shooters will realize they have, in fact, shot themselves.

“If you have 13 children in one class, and then you have 25 children in another class in the same district, I would say the experience for the children is totally different. We would like to equalize that.”

Wesley Olson, Superintendent of Bond County School District No. 2 

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