Holyrood, Claflin parents push to consolidate districts

HOLYROOD — Ted Shepmann and the other members of a grassroots band of parents in favor of their Lorraine-based school system consolidating with the Claflin district had no idea what to expect when they scheduled a meeting Wednesday night.

"We were expecting five or 10 people to show up," Shepmann said of the meeting held in Holyrood. "But we had to move to a church gymnasium and we filled that."

The group, Parents for Consolidation, formed early Tuesday after the Lorraine school board decided Monday night to delay action on the merger. The plan was tabled until August to take the proposal to the district's voters.

"We want to take it to a vote," Shepmann said. "We want to do anything to save our schools."

The USD 328 board met with its Claflin USD 354 counterpart Dec. 18, and the boards hammered out a preliminary, nonbinding consolidation agreement.

The Claflin board, facing shrinking enrollment and a quarter-million dollars in spending cuts, hoped to get the matter on the April general election ballot. This would require approval by both districts sooner rather than later.

"The handwriting is on the wall," Shepmann said. "The majority of the parents want this."

There is some urgency. State deputy education commissioner Dale Dennis said state law guarantees that if a district of more than 200 students combines with another, the new joint district will maintain its current funding level for five years.

However, the consolidations must be completed by June 30, 2011. This requires that both boards, district voters and the state Department of Education approve it.

So, Shepmann and company fear that if the Lorraine board waits until August, they may miss their window of opportunity. "We don't care what the new schools will be called, we just want to keep our kids in our schools."

The pro-consolidation group hopes to force the Lorraine board to hold a special meeting by next Friday to reconsider its action.

Board member Malcolm Shaw said he felt rushed. "This was the first our board has worked on this," he said. "We've not had time to plan ahead."

Getting the matter to the voters by April would require a lot of decisions in one month.

Board member Renae Lumpkins of Holyrood was in favor of the April deadline and said she has the support to call a special meeting. Such a meeting takes either the support of three board members or a request by the board president.

Lumpkins and Shepmann said they have yet to meet a parent from either district who opposes consolidation.