Noting the short notice given to the community about a vote to close Gilbert Junior High School, the district governing board decided Tuesday that the school will close for the 2014-2015 school and a transition team will come up with a recommendation about what happens next school year.
The 3-1 vote came at nearly 11:30 p.m. after more than an hour of discussion and an hour of public comment. When the meeting began four hours earlier, nearly 400 people filled the cafeteria at Mesquite High School, where it took place.
District administration had recommended closing Gilbert Junior High School next school year. Gilbert Superintendent Dave Alison sent a letter home to Gilbert Junior High families two weeks ago about the recommendation to close the school and move Gilbert Classical Academy to its campus.
Board member Blake Sacha proposed a different idea – give the community more time to come up with a transition plan for next year. His proposal creates a committee of parents from both Gilbert Junior High School and Gilbert Classical Academy, as well as leaders from both schools. That committee is charged with coming up with a plan no later than the first governing board meeting in January, but still closes Gilbert Junior High School with the 2014-2015 school year.
Sacha noted that it is possible the committee will recommend full closure of Gilbert Junior High earlier, but this way, there’s more time and community input on the recommendation.
Sacha and board members EJ Anderson and Helen Hollands approved the measure. Board member Staci Burk voted against it, saying she did not believe there was enough information available to make a decision on closing Gilbert Junior High.
Board member Lily Tram was out-of-state for work and was not in attendance.
The decision came after parents from both schools voiced their opinions – with Gilbert Classical Academy families and teachers ready to embrace a bigger campus that can hold more students and Gilbert Junior High School families imploring the district to take more time with a decision. Many noted that the recommendation from the Gilbert school leaders pitted one school against the other.
“The Gilbert administration has made a recommendation without the input of the community or knowing the cost,” Karen Udall, a Gilbert resident and former Gilbert school board member, said.
Michele Frasier, president of the PTO at Gilbert Classical Academy, asked the board to vote in favor of the district plan to give more students an opportunity to learn under the academy’s rigorous curriculum and high expectations.
“In the limited space we’re in, we can’t give that opportunity to students. Also take into considerations the sacrifices GCA students are taking. We would like to offer AP chemistry, but we don’t have the lab facilities to do that,” she said. She added that because of the shortage of athletic space at the current campus, there is no “home court” for Gilbert Classical Academy teams.
Bill Isaacson, a member of the Gilbert Junior High School community, said he felt “railroaded” and “blindsided” by the proposal and decision to bring the matter to the board.
“Other solutions could have been explored a lot better,” he told the board.
Sacha at one point in the evening reiterated that idea.
“I think all the board members agree, we could have done this better,” he said.
Prior to the public comments and governing board discussion, Allison reviewed the district enrollment and its strategic plan.
The plan, approved this summer, asked the district to explore ways to expand Gilbert Classical Academy, a popular seventh- through 12th grade program in its sixth year. The academy now has close to 400 students, with about 100 on a waiting list.
There is no application process for the school, but the district holds a lottery each year because of the limited number of spaces available. All students take honors or AP classes. Students must take more classes than students at Gilbert’s comprehensive high schools in order to receive a diploma.
Allison said the district looked at using an elementary school site to expand the academy, but because of the age of the students, that would not work. And with all the district high schools close to full, the decision was made to look at a junior high school, he said.
The district chose Gilbert Junior High School, a school with declining enrollment because it is an aging community. It had more than 1,000 kids in 2003. There are less than 700 now.
The academy is now located in about half the buildings on the old Greenfield Elementary School site at Greenfield and Elliot roads.
The district proposed boundary changes that will send most students now in Gilbert Junior High School boundaries to Greenfield and Mesquite junior high school, and shift the boundaries for five of the six junior highs schools altogether. That decision will come at another time.
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