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Dent may be K-2 in 2008-09

"Nobody wants to see a good school locked up."

That was a comment made, by Superintendent Tamara Uselman, at the District 549 school board meeting in Dent April 16.

Meeting in the little Dent Elementary School gym, the board devoted about an hour of the meeting to discussing the future of the Dent school. A final decision on Dent school's outlook for 2008-09 is expected at a May 7, 6:30 p.m. school board meeting in Dent.

About 50 people attended the meeting, most of them Dent area residents. A number of questions were posed, reflecting the concern over Dent "losing its school."

"We moved here specifically because of the Dent school," said John Zajac, father of two grade school kids attending Dent. "Dent is very proud of this school, the teachers do an excellent job here, and it' s a small school--there are not too many schools like this anymore."

Grim realities and optimistic possibilities have been pondered by school officials ever since another $500,000 was cut last month from the district's 2008-09 school year budget.

There have been more than $1 million in cuts over the past year, and it was probably inevitable that the Dent school would be scrutinized--as it has several times during financial challenges over the past two decades. Enrollment at the K-4 grade Dent school is projected to fall to only 38 over the next three years.

"It's a rare and special's a profound place for learning," said Superintendent Uselman.

In the next breath, however, the superintendent delivered an honest remark about Dent's future: "A kindergarten to grade 4 model is just not sustainable into the future."

One of the options for next year is to shrink Dent to a K-2 school--but add or expand other programs such as Head Start, a latch key program, and the prospect of leasing part of the building to a daycare provider. Reportedly, there isn't a daycare provider in the immediate Dent area.

But Uselman said she also had to be direct about the long-range prospects of a smaller K-2 school.

"I don't believe a K-2 school is sustainable, either," she said. "A K-2 model wouldn't be cost efficient."

Other ideas have included adult education offerings, community ed classes, and a facility for additional Alternative Education programs.

But several Dent residents lamented the potential loss of a small, neighborhood school where children had lots of one-on-one instruction. One parent noted that many kids coming up through Dent have had solid academic performance and high grade point averages all the way through high school.

"I agree, there is a great history of outstanding students coming out of here," said Fred Sailer, Perham school administrator. In fact, one of his children attended Dent elementary school, he noted. "We want to find ways to make it work in Dent. We're not going to close the doors and board it up--in fact, we're installing a new boiler in the Dent school this summer."

The fact that the district is investing in the facility is cause for Dent residents to be optimistic. Furthermore, alternative programs often have special, earmarked budgets, along with potential funding and grant sources that do not affect the school's operating budget.

"The Dent school will change, but not close," said board member Mike Hamann, who reminded the audience that the board is not lock-step and unanimous on the subject of the Dent school. Board member Dan Nodsle, for example, is a Dent resident and has represented Dent interests over his five years on the school board.

"We're struggling with this as a board...and I, for one, am not necessarily on board," with the prospect of closing the Dent school, noted Hamann.

The reality, unfortunately, was summed up by the superintendent: "We can't maintain a K-4 school here, as it exists today...the Dent school will be different next fall than it is now."

Dent teachers won't lose jobs

Teachers in the Dent school will not lose their jobs if the facility reduces to a K-2 building.

The question of what will happen with the staff was raised at the April 16 school board session in Dent.

Faculty in Dent will be transferred to Perham, said Superintendent Tamara Uselman. "The teachers in Dent are high in seniority, so they would continue, but in some classroom at the Perham school," said Uselman.

A coalition of school officials, Dent residents and board members are exploring numerous options for Dent.

Among the options is a plan to continue at least another year with K-2 grade in Dent, but move grades 3-4 to Perham.

One concern expressed by Dent parents is whether or not the class size would be larger in the Perham classrooms. For the most part, class sizes at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School are comparable to Dent, with teacher-student ratios averaging about about 24-1.

Another idea to sustain some elementary school offerings in Dent is to contract for hot lunch with the local restaurant, Nootzi's, in order to reduce staff and overhead costs.