B y Jamie Norton

The Board of Education wanted to find out how the public felt about the possibility of closing Mary J. Tanner School.

Now it knows.

Almost 80 taxpayers and community members showed up to an open forum on Wednesday to voice their opinions about whether or not the school district should consider closing the Middle Granville-based elementary school to save what consultant Paul Seversky estimated to be more than $600,000 per year.

The answer was a resounding “No.”

The answer to other questions regarding the direction Granville should take its educational infrastructure in the future was less clear. But school board President Audrey Hicks and forum facilitator Dr. Hollis Palmer made sure everyone from the floor who wanted to speak had a chance to express their opinions and ideas.

“What we’re looking for from you is, where do you see the school in the future, and which way would you like us to go,” Hicks said. “Or would you like us to do nothing? And doing nothing is fine for now, but whether or not that’s going to have us going in the direction we need to go for the future is a question.”

Palmer, an educator for more than 40 years who has authored 11 published books, was brought in as a neutral party to moderate the discussion.

“I have no iron in this fire,” he said. “We want to hear from the community.”

And that they did. Some offerings were heated, many were intuitive, and all were valuable, as the forum, which was designed to collect a spectrum of opinions and ideas and disambiguate the direction the school board wanted to go with GCS’s educational future, did just that.

“I think it was great,” Hicks said afterwards. “I think we got the input we were looking for; it was just in a different format.”

While the agenda for the evening was intended to include a “workshop-style” discussion in which people from different aspects of the community would break down into smaller groups and brainstorm ideas, that format quickly went out the window as constituents showed they simply wanted to share their personal opinions with the board in front of the entire room.

Most of the evening’s discussion was about why closing MJT would be a bad idea. That proposal stemmed from a study done last summer by Seversky on the efficiency of the delivery of education in the district that suggested that the building could be closed in a cost-cutting measure and that all grades could be accommodated in Granville Elementary School and the Junior-Senior High School.

That idea, according to the study – which was based on projections of declining enrollment over the next five years – would save the district approximately $667,000 per year.

“That’s just an idea,” Superintendent Mark Bessen said. “That’s not THE idea. That savings is sometimes a little questionable, depending on who’s looking at it.”

Bessen said much of the savings Seversky came up with in his report were based on reduced staffing, assuming staff and faculty would be downsized should the school district be condensed to two buildings instead of three. But a closer look suggests that only maybe two positions would get cut in the proposed shuffle, resulting in a much smaller cost reduction than Seversky estimated.

Beverly Tatko, a longtime former board member, gave a very impassioned speech against the current board for even considering Seversky’s findings.

“His job was to gather information, present it to the board – he was not to make a recommendation,” Tatko said. “I’ve read it, I heard him say it, and so forth. Now, here we are; he recommends that we close Mary J. Tanner School. Well, if you don’t think that upset a few people, (you’re wrong).”

Linda Aldous was one of those people.

“If you close Mary J. Tanner School, there is no going back,” she said. “That is like cutting off your right arm.”

While not necessarily endorsing the idea, board members Sue McEachron, John McDermott, and Eric Scribner did their best to explain why the board was considering such a drastic step.

“You’ve got to have options,” said Scribner, who pointed out that the school district’s population has shrunk drastically since his son graduated six years ago, and current trends suggest that will continue.

“We are a small community,” Scribner said. “We can’t just say we’re going to close a school; these are options we put out there in order to protect the future of our education.”

Hicks emphasized that the point of the forum was to discuss options and ideas, not force one on the taxpayers.

“We are not looking to close Mary J. Tanner,” she said. “We are looking for feedback on which direction we’d like to go.”

As the evening wore on, the board was able to shift the conversation to whether or not it should hire Robert Hendriks, a certified educational facilities professional from the Educational Legacy Planning Group. Hendriks has made two presentations to the board and suggested that, before any decision was made on what to do with any of the school buildings in Granville, the school district should devise a plan about what it wants the educational landscape to look like within the next 20 years.

The idea would be that Hendriks would be hired to facilitate studies, collect community feedback, and help map out a long-term game plan that could include restructuring not only the educational vision within the district but the facilities to accommodate that vision.

While the community agreed that it was time to start discussing that vision, it wasn’t necessarily on board with shelling out thousands of dollars for another specialist.

“We have to seriously plan, and we’d better start doing this as a community,” said local businesswoman Candace Combs. “You don’t need a study. You’ve got some of the brightest people in here. Stop going over their head and saying, ‘Oh, this person from outside is smarter than the rest of us.’”

Tatko said that, when she was on the school board, “We didn’t go and hire people. We talked to the great people of the Granville community. They were smart people, good people – business people … We’ve got it all right here, as far as I’m concerned.”

Combs and Tatko’s sentiments were echoed loudly, as the consensus seemed to be for the school district to independently conduct many of the studies and community interaction that Hendriks’ company specializes in. That way, it would save the Granville taxpayers a few bucks while accomplishing much of the same using internal, rather than external, resources.

“It sounds like they’re leaning toward looking for a vision for the future,” Hicks said. “The question is, how are we going to get there? And they would like to try to get there without hiring somebody to lead us there, which sounds like something we could try.”

“This is our school – we pay the taxes – these are our children,” Tatko said. “I think you have to listen to the people who do live here.”

The board of education will discuss the findings of Wednesday’s forum at its next monthly meeting, scheduled for Monday at 7 p.m.

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