by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — The rain didn't keep many of the planned attendees away from an event meant to save W.H. Stevenson Elementary in Ransomville from being mothballed.
Ruth Anne Buzzard, who organized the event, sees the Wilson School District making a catastrophic mistake if it moves forward with plans to close the building.
"If you close down a school, there goes the community," she said. "This is happening at an alarming rate. We're disassembling America, building schools in other places around the world while ours at home are being shut down."
Buzzard, who in April started a petition to try to force state politicians to provide much more equitable funding to rural, upstate districts like Wilson, brought several dignitaries, including Porter Town Supervisor Merton Wiepert and several members of the Ransomville Fire Department, to the event. Together with members of the school's parent-teacher association, Buzzard lit a 50-foot tree strung with more than 2,000 mini Christmas lights and several stars lit up outside 3996 Andrews Road, Ransomville.
The stars, she said, represent the hopes and dreams of the children the district would be displacing should officials follow through with shutting the school's doors.
"It's kind of an awesome sight," she said about the lights and the stars on the tree. "When we started stringing the lights, I said I wanted as many on there as possible. We got as many light strings as possible on that tree."
The program also featured a salute to veterans and the first responders of the community, which she said rely on schools to keep families in the area. With families to protect, the firefighters, emergency medical technicians and police organizations can actively recruit people to help secure the community.
The Wilson School Board has gone back and forth with the issue of closing the school for a while now. In fact, for more than three months, the district's school board has been contemplating many options, including closing the school, to overcome a projected budget deficit of between $600,000 and $1.1 million, according to School Board President Timothy Kropp.
He said the district is also considering other drastic measures to overcome the deficit, including exceeding the district's property tax cap threshold this coming May.
But closing the school as a way to cut staff — in a district losing population — is definitely being considered seriously, he said.
"We are in an economic crisis just like every other school district," Kropp said. "We're going to have to cut staff, and one way to do it is closing a building."
The district does have a $3.2 million fund at its disposal to help ease the burden on the district, but Kropp said the money just isn't enough by itself. He said the fund will be exhausted to help the district over the next few years, but it likely won't be enough to save the building if the board pursues closing.
Though he didn't endorse Buzzard's program, saying it was not district sanctioned, he did encourage Buzzard and others who feel the way she does to express themselves. He's also hopeful those who feel differently will also express their concerns about the five different options the board is considering.
"That's democracy in action," he said. "We encourage people to speak at our board meetings. They're from that side of the district and we welcome them to say what they feel. We also encourage people from the other side of the district to speak up.
"At the end of the day, we're just trying to do the right thing for kids."