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Fate Of Old Red Schoolhouse In Jeopardy

 

March 11, 2021

Bethel Public Schools alumnus Michael Williams is circulating a petition to save the town's Old Red Schoolhouse.

According to Williams' online petition, the schoolhouse has been a community landmark for nearly 40 years, and was constructed by Bethel students. But now, construction from the district's 2020 bond issue is putting the building's future in jeopardy.

Discussion of the district's new construction projects was front and center at Bethel Public School's Board of Education meeting on Monday night, although the only construction-related vote required little deliberation from board members. The board voted unanimously, early in the meeting, to direct the outgoing superintendent to designate one or more administrators or staff to assist with and monitor construction projects.

Later construction discussion, regarding the future of the Old Red Schoolhouse, was not on the agenda in an actionable manner for this meeting, but came up during Superintendent Tod Harrison's report.

"That little red schoolhouse was two grade school classrooms, once upon a time," Harrison said. "And it's been a few things in between, and it's got some sentimental value."

Originally, the 2020 bond issue Q&As called for the building to be moved, not demolished. But then the school received a cost assessment for the project, which threw that plan into flux.

"The assessment was not the news we wanted," Harrison said.

To move the building, Harrison said the board would need to budget between $85,000 and $100,000. To demolish it, he said the board would only need between $12,000 and $15,000.

"The alternative plan was to move it, and use it as an alumni center," Harrison said. "It's just not in the scope of the best use of public funds to do so."

Board President David Elmore suggested that if a local business or group would be willing to donate the time and resources needed to complete the project, that might be the solution everyone is looking for.

Harrison said he's already been getting phone calls from individuals in the community who might be able to find just such a donor.

But for Michael Williams, the Old Red Schoolhouse is a building worth saving, donor or no donor.

Williams graduated from Bethel Public Schools in 2014, and said his mother and siblings were all district alumni. And for most of them, Williams said their journey through Bethel's K-12 program began in the Old Red Schoolhouse.

"It means a lot to everybody," Williams said. "It's a pillar of our community. I couldn't tell you how many classes started there ... but everybody I know obviously started kindergarten there."

While Williams said he was amenable to Elmore's suggestion of finding a donor, he also said he was frustrated with the exorbitant price of moving the building in the first place.

"If high schoolers can build it, I don't understand why we can't find a bid for somebody to at least move it ... rather than just destroy it," Williams said.

Williams encouraged community members in Bethel Acres, who are interested in the efforts to save the schoolhouse, to sign his petition on change.org. A link to the petition is circulating through Bethel Acres residents' Facebook feeds, and can be found in a popular post on Michael Williams' personal page as well.

And if Williams' online petition fails, he said he'll refocus his efforts towards community organization to get the building moved.

"It needs to be saved," Williams said. "If it can."

During the meeting, the board also approved a couple of non-construction related expenditures, with plans to pay using the district's county educational sales tax funds.

The first was for $14,000 worth of diesel fuel, to be stored in the district's 7500 gallon capacity tank. Board members approved this item unanimously.

The second expenditure using county sales tax funds will purchase the district a drain cleaning machine, for $3,028.36. Harrison said the machine will pay for itself within seven to eight uses, based on the cost of calling in a plumber.

"Is this the snake?" Elmore asked.

"Yeah, it's a snake with a big motor on it," Harrison said.

Before expenditures from county educational sales tax funds are finalized, the district will need to seek approval from the Pottawatomie County Board of Commissioners.

The most time consuming agenda item, by far, was an executive session to discuss the rehiring of administrative staff. One of the items attached to this week's agenda was a document titled "Administrator Re-Hires 2021-2022." The document listed administrators to be considered for re-hire, including the principals and assistant principals of every school and Athletic Director Eric Litherland.

When the board returned from executive session, board member Susan Watson read off a list of positions that the board would be voting to rehire. Notably absent from this list was the position of Athletic Director.

"The board will be voting on all personnel that do not have an administrative contract at the April meeting," Watson said prior to the vote.

All of the principals and assistant principals up for re-hire consideration were then approved by a unanimous vote.

Vice President Kevin Roland declined to comment on how Litherland's omission from the list of approved administrative re-hires would affect his status as Athletic Director. Instead, Roland pointed to Watson's statement, and said non-administrative personnel would be considered in April.

 

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