Mahoney speaks to Mt. Morris Village Board about possible school closure

By Earleen Hinton

ehinton@shawmedia.com

Oregon Superintendent Tom Mahoney told the Mt. Morris Village Board Tuesday that closing the David L. Rahn Junior High School in Mt. Morris is not something he wants to do, but is necess

itated by decreasing enrollments and increasing maintenance costs.

It was the second time in 9 days that Mahoney’s presented a proposal to close the school after the 2021-22 school year. Last week he presented the proposal to the Oregon School Board with Mt. Morris officials present in the Oregon High School gym.

On Tuesday, Mahoney presented a shorter version of the reasons for the proposal with 10 people in the audience.

Mahoney said he was recommending closing the 66-year-old school, which houses 7th and 8th grade students, because the building needs $6 million in repairs and is costing the district’s budget about $400,000 a year.

He is proposing closing the school at the end of the 2021-22 school year and moving students to Oregon High School.

He told the Village Board that his recommendation was not something he wanted to do, but was based on the district’s finances which have been operating at a deficit of $400,000 for 5 years, each year, due in part to maintenance costs for the junior high.

“I’ve wanted to keep that school open for as long I could,” he said.

He said other measures to cut spending over the last 5 years have already been undertaken, including cutting the teaching staff 14% and the administrative staff 28%.

The most recent setback for the district was the results of the state-required 10-year Health, Life, Safety survey of the district buildings. Done last fall, that study shows that nearly $6 million in state-mandated improvements are needed, including asbestos removal, at DLR.

He said the building’s wastewater pipes also need to be replaced and the gym floor. “It can’t be refinished any more. We have sanded it down so many times that the nails are popping up. It will need to be replaced,” he said.

The school district could issue bonds to pay for the work, which would then be passed on to all taxpayers within the school district as debt-service, Mahoney said.

Electrical, roof, and security upgrades have been made at DLR since the districts consolidated in 1994.

Mahoney said he commissioned a study from the University of Illinois at Springfield in 2020 to determine the best solution. Closing DLR will save the district more than $200,000 a year in operational costs, the study concluded.

Village President Phil Labash was one of four Mt. Morris residents who commented on Mahoney’s presentation last week. He asked audience members who were present to wait to comment on the proposal at an upcoming Town Hall Meeting at DLR on Thursday.

On Tuesday, he reiterated that the school board’s decision not to rebuild the Rahn Elementary School in Mt. Morris, following a fire in 2004, was “devastating” to the village.

“This is a blow,” he said referring to the junior high proposal, “but that (Rahn elementary) was devastating.”

School board officials opted to move grade school students to the Oregon campus and not rebuild Rahn Elementary in Mt. Morris when the school burned in February 2004.

Labash also warned of “long term consequences” for the school district if the junior high is closed and a referendum is needed to pay for additions or new buildings if enrollment increases.

“I understand the short term concern, but there’s got to be a look to the future,” he said.

He said the plan to close the school does not allow for future growth and argued that current enrollment will not stay static.

In his original presentation, Mahoney said enrollment is not expected to increase for the school district.

Labash said closing the junior high will “further polarize” Mt. Morris residents and make passage of a any school-related referendum impossible.

Village Trustee Ed Higley asked what the plan for the junior high building would be if the school board agrees to close it.

Mahoney said options would be to try and sell the building “as is”, pay to have all the asbestos removed and then try and sell it, or raze it.

“Each of those have a different cost,” he said.

Mahoney was scheduled to offer more information and answer questions again at a town hall meeting at DLR on Thursday, May 27 at 6 p.m.

Due to print deadlines, a story on that meeting will appear in the June 4 editions. Visit www.oglecountynews.com for updates.

Earleen Hinton

Earleen oversees production and content of 9 community weeklies and has worked for Shaw Newspapers since 1985.