New Harmony School will consolidate

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Details of transition remain unknown

By Mary Keck

On Thursday, Dec. 8, the New Harmony School Board voted unanimously to seek consolidation. Before about 50 residents of the community, board members shared their reasons for supporting the closing of the school.
“To a lot of people this is a new topic, but not for us,” Vice President Jason Wilson said. He outlined numerous steps the board took before coming to their decision such as hiring a curriculum coach, adopting a state health insurance plan, trying marketing campaigns, eliciting charter sponsorship, and even considering virtual education. “All of these [efforts] suffered from one fundamental weakness — the funding was not there,” Wilson summarized.
He also rejected the tax referendum option by explaining that it would force the board to make more cuts.
“We feel we should cut no more,” Wilson said, and added that the referendum “does not address declining enrollment.” At the start of next year, New Harmony School will have roughly 30 fewer students returning. “At what point does the class size get too small?” he asked. “Next year if things don’t change we could have two classes in our elementary that have two kids in them. Are we doing a disservice to those kids?”
Despite having heard the board’s rationalizations, many in the audience could be heard weeping and a few walked out when the vote to consolidate was carried. Even some board members had moist eyes. Teacher Rick Johnson described it as “like the death of a good friend. You know it is coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier.”
With the votes cast, President James Scarfia addressed the question of which area institution would receive the students of NHS, saying merging “is not automatic. We have to work out an agreement with a willing school district, form a joint resolution between that board and our board, and the consolidation has to be approved by the Indiana Department of Education.
All that takes time.” Scarfia did not share which school was the most likely candidate, but added, “we’ve had more recent talks with North Posey. Talks will be ongoing with both districts. I do not know where we’ll end up.”
Not only is the students’ future home in question, but locals are also asking about the long-term impact of the closing on residents.  A tearful Taylor Espenlaub, who graduated from NHS in 2009 and is now attending the University of Southern Indiana, is worried about the impact on employees.
“I’ve been here since kindergarten and have had most of these teachers. It’s hard to see them lose their jobs,” she said while asking her friend for a tissue.
Johnson agreed. “We have great staff and several aren’t ready to retire,” he said. “We could consolidate without [the receiving school] taking a single teacher.”
Though Johnson has been in contact with the school board about the outlook for NHS employees, he says “no promises have been made.”
Johnson also expressed concern about the future of New Harmony, and said “we have a lot of tourists, but when you take kids out, you lose the lifeblood of the community.”
Col. Darvin Barnes, on the other hand, believes there “won’t be a tremendous impact [because] there will always be some form of education in New Harmony. We have a campus for the Humanities and Arts and an active community.”
While all the effects of the board’s decision are yet to be seen, change is certain for students, teachers, and staff of the New Harmony School.
“This doesn’t have to be negative. There are a lot of opportunities for the kids,” Scarfia reminded those in attendance.
Even with this vote on the school’s future out of the way, the board’s work is not finished, as new choices will need to be made over the coming months during the consolidation process. The next board meeting will take place on Jan. 12 at 6 p.m. in the New Harmony School’s media center.