SALEM -- Despite strong arguments Wednesday night to keep Van Horn Elementary open, the Harrison County school board voted unanimously to close the school in 2006.
Fewer than 25 Harrison County residents attended the Board of Education public hearing, many of them teachers at the school and board office personnel.
Only six members of the public spoke at the hearing: Dr. Joseph Audia, Becky Rogers, Laura Yokochi, Fredette Leda, Paul Hamrick and Jerry Boyce. Five of the speakers spoke against the closure. Rogers posed questions about the curriculum and future of teachers at the school.
"I don't think this is about what's best for the children, but what's best financially for the Board of Education," Leda said. "If you are truly concerned about our children, then smaller schools are better."
Leda also voiced her concern for the future of Salem if Van Horn and Harden are closed, as proposed by the school board.
"It means you're giving the town a death sentence, and I'm very concerned about the direction the town is taking," Leda said. "I'm concerned about two more abandoned buildings on Main Street, and I wonder how long it will be before all the schools in Salem are closed."
Audia, whose practice is located within Salem, also asked the school board to consider the repercussions for the city.
"If you follow the current plan, Salem will suffer," he said. "I don't want that for my town. I'm not against progress, but if you close the schools, our businesses are going to struggle."
Audia asked the board if they approved the closure to consider tearing down the building and selling the property, to open up valuable real estate.
Before the final vote, board members James Reaser and James Bennett addressed the audience. Both have granddaughters in the school and said their decisions were not made lightly.
"Consolidations are not easy, but we're elected on a countywide basis and we have to look at what's best for the county," Reaser said. "We have to move forward and do what's best for the children. I believe we have no choice but to support the superintendent."
Following the hearing, several teachers in attendance were disappointed to hear the news.
Board President Sally Cann said she empathized with them.
"People from the Salem community expressed their concerns, and those are all concerns we've expressed ourselves," she said. "However, with the declining enrollment I'm concerned about the curriculum we'll be able to offer, and by putting the schools together we'll be able to offer the students more."
Hamrick challenged the board's 10-year closure and consolidation plan, stating that a group of citizens presented the board with a petition of 500 signatures against the plan several years ago. Hamrick also questioned why Simpson Elementary in Bridgeport was not slated for closure, when it was an older building than Van Horn.
The Board of Education plan calls for the closure and consolidation of Harden and Van Horn Elementary schools. The students would attend the current Salem Middle School, after renovations.
The plan also calls for the closure of Gore and Salem Middle schools. Those students would attend a new middle school to be built near Liberty High School. The new school would be contingent on the School Board obtaining funding from the state School Building Authority.
Three more public hearings are scheduled on the closures next week: 6 p.m. July 29 at Harden Elementary, 6 p.m. July 30 at Salem Middle and 6 p.m. July 31 at Gore Middle.
The board will vote on each closure at the end of the meetings at each school. For all the schools to close, the board must approve each successive closure.
Harrison County has closed 18 schools since 1985. By 2009, the county's consolidation plan calls for the closure and consolidation of 10 additional schools.
Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.