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Groups will learn Hopedale school fate

Groups will learn Hopedale school fate

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STANFORD After almost two years of uncertainty, the future of Hopedale Elementary School will be decided Monday.

A group of citizens, known as Vision 25, wants to reopen the now-closed school by breaking away from Olympia school district and joining the nearby Delavan school district.

Opponents, most notably Olympia officials, parents and high school students, want to keep the Hopedale area in the 377-square mile district — one the largest areas in the state — but keep the school closed to cut costs.

Both sides are cautiously optimistic, and both say the outcome isn't easy to predict.

It's all up to the seven-member Tazewell Regional Board of School Trustees which meets Monday to issue its ruling that is subject to appeal.

The basis of their decision is found in 2,500 pages of transcripts from 10 days of hearings in August and September, and closing legal arguments submitted after the hearings ended.

"There were so many pages, I couldn't fit them in the biggest binder I could find," said Tazewell Regional Superintendent of Schools Rob Houchin, who has no vote in the matter, but who was responsible for setting the hearings and following the process required by state law.

The Olympia school district was created in 1967 when five small school districts in parts of five counties, McLean, Woodford, Tazewell, Logan and DeWitt, joined to form one big district.

More recent hard financial times, reflected in a funding gap predicted to be as high as $3.9 million, led to significant program cuts.

But as expenses continued to outpace revenue, and property tax increase referendums failed in 2003 and 2004, the Olympia school board closed three elementary schools — Hopedale, Stanford and Atlanta in June 2004. The remaining three grade schools were renamed Olympia West in Minier, Olympia South in Atlanta, and Olympia North in Danvers.

"We feel the relationship with Olympia board and administration, and Hopedale is irretrievably broken," said the Phillip Lenzini, a Peoria attorney representing Vision 25.

"Obviously, the district feels strongly that the law is on our side," countered Olympia's lawyer, Jeff Funk of Monticello, "We feel it is in the best interest of the area that the petition be denied."

If Olympia wins, it would keep the Hopedale area, which represents about 13 percent of the district's equalized assessed valuation, said Funk, adding he doesn't think the Hopedale's school would remain open indefinitely even if it is annexed to Delavan.

If the petitioners win, the school has "a probable and certain possibility" to reopen, Lenzini said.

The issue has been discussed over and over again at dozens of public meetings, at school and in coffee shops across the district, creating passion on both sides.

Early in the game, Vision 25 members and their supporters even offered to pay to keep the school open one more year. Olympia officials said no, arguing it wouldn't be fair to its other district schools.

Vision 25 didn't let up, initiating talks with neighboring school districts and eventually connecting with Delavan. On Oct. 4, 2004 the detachment and annexation petition was filed with the Tazewell Regional Board of School Trustees.

"It's not a typical detachment case," said Funk, noting that it directly affects about 250 students in the Hopedale area. Often, detachment cases involve one family.

Olympia has spent about $100,000 opposing the detachment over the last two years, with most of that spent in the last four months,

Vision 25 and the petitioners have spent $33,000, over the same period, said Mark Rossi, a Vision 25 leader and spokesman for the group. The Delavan school board has spent less than $300, said Superintendent Mary Parker.

"I feel I speak for the Delavan board of education, staff and the Delavan community that we are very excited about the potential possibility of having Hopedale join our school district," said Parker.

At a special meeting in June, the regional board determined there were a total of 1,255 registered voters in the detachment territory. The petition required signatures of two-thirds of registered voters, or 837; the board found there were 844 valid signatures and the hearing process was set.

The hearings began Aug. 3 and included 10 days of information and testimony ending on Sept. 15.

Dozens of witnesses on both sides of the debate testified, including parents, grandparents, students, school administrators, business people, village officials, teachers and volunteers.

"The hearing was interesting, tedious and boring," said Olympia Superintendent Don Hahn.

While the regional trustees didn't have to attend, they were required to wade through the thousands of pages of the transcript.

"They've had their work cut out for them," said Hahn.

As for an appeal from either side, Lenzini said it depends on the decision.

Rossi agreed it's too early to know. "I don't want to minimize the importance of what the trustees say. It is not certain if there will be an appeal," he said.

For Rossi, the worst outcome would be if the case was thrown out because of a technicality concerning the petition itself. "It's not a big concern," he said, but it would be a huge disappointment if the trustees didn't make their decision based on the testimony after all the work done — by both sides.

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