Hoquiam school board votes to close Central Elementary

Effort to consolidate district won’t move forward until at least 2025

In a move to reconcile building space for its chronically dwindling enrollment, the Hoquiam School District Board of Directors Thursday evening voted unanimously to shutter Central Elementary School.

The school won’t close for at least another full school year, the earliest date being fall 2025. The district still needs to decide on future configurations of grade levels and classes among the four remaining buildings, which will likely happen next year, said Hoquiam Superintendent Mike Villarreal.

No employee downsizing will be associated with the closing of Central, according to district officials.

“We’ve tried to be very, very fair,” Villarreal said. “It’s a tough decision, and there’s a lot of emotion tied to that, and people have feelings and lot of questions — ‘what next?’ — and all those things. But we’ve got some time, and we’ve got some work to do.”

“It’s not a five-year decision, not even a 10-year decision, this is a 30-year decision about buildings.”

The district held a series of six community meetings over the last month and a half to gather public input on which school to close down. At a March 30 meeting, the school board decided officially to shrink the district by one campus. At that time it was already apparent the decision was between Central or Emerson elementary schools — Hoquiam Middle School and Hoquiam High School are each unique to the district, while Lincoln Elementary was recently remodeled and would mean a loss of investment if closed.

Board member Chris Eide said the decision was “not an obvious choice.” Both schools are similar in size and needed similar investments for repairs, although Emerson will require slightly more money at $3.1 million as opposed to Central’s $2.2 million.

Closing Central will allow the district to reallocate that money to repairs elsewhere, and put the district in a more optimal position for future funding.

On Thursday evening, Eide held up a spreadsheet — a list of public opinions derived from community meetings stating which school should be kept and why. The opinions were, for the most part, divided.

The vote, however, after a motion from board member Tanya Anderson, passed without controversy or disagreement between board members.

“I’m surprised this was unanimous, honestly,” said board member Hoki Moir directly after the vote.

Board members assured they had not discussed the matter outside of the public meetings, crediting the community engagement process with working out the kinks of the issue. Villarreal added he didn’t provide his opinion on the matter throughout the process.

School board members based the decision mostly on location, they said, given the proximity of Emerson to the middle and high schools. Board member Bryce Puvogel said the cluster of campuses provides more security and cited Emerson’s easy access to tsunami evacuation routes.

In addition, Eide said, Central’s location closer to downtown Hoquiam could make it easier to sell or lease once closed, the money from which would be rolled back into repairs for other buildings.

Eide said Central’s gym and cafeteria will be missed.

“Emerson is by no means a perfect situation,” Eide said. “It would be great to have a separate gym and cafeteria, and we’ll keep that in mind going forward.”

Central Elementary currently serves grades two through five while Emerson is a pre-K through first grade school.

As it currently stands, the district has about double the amount of square footage than is needed for the amount of students enrolled, according to funding formulas set by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. OSPI awards funding for building maintenance and construction based on enrollment, which for Hoquiam has dropped by about 25% in the last 20 years, now sitting at about 1,600 students.

But while student numbers kept dropping, needed repairs on the district’s aging buildings kept adding up with limited funding sources to pay for them.

Cutting Central will remove 14 classrooms and 37,000 of the district’s 300,000 square footage.

Including repairs to Central, which are no longer necessary, the district overall needed to make between $31.5 million and $35.5 million in repairs, and $23 million to $27 million would be devoted to a high school modernization. Villarreal said the district saved a small amount of money to repair the roof of Emerson Elementary.

Now that the district knows Central is off the books, it can begin work on crafting a bond measure to pay for construction. The district is looking for a 25 to 50 member bond committee to put together the district’s ask for next February.

According to Villarreal, the district still needs to reduce the total square footage of the high school by half in order to secure match funding from OSPI through an upcoming bond. The bond request will ultimately have to be approved by the school board. Should the bond pass next February, the district can then sort out which students and which teachers will be moved to which schools.

“We have to be thinking 30 to 50 years down the road, what we deem is going to be best for our students and our families at that time,” Moir said.

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.

Hoquiam Superintendent Mike Villarreal addresses the audience at Thursday evening’s school board meeting. (Clayton Franke / The Daily World)

Hoquiam Superintendent Mike Villarreal addresses the audience at Thursday evening’s school board meeting. (Clayton Franke / The Daily World)