By HERB SWETT
For the Keizertimes

Repurposing (closure followed by changes in use of the buildings) of three elementary schools was approved by the Salem-Keizer School Board on Tuesday night.

Lake Labish, in the McNary High School attendance area, will close after the current school year, with its students being transferred to Keizer Elementary School next year. The other schools that will close are Bethel and Fruitland in Salem.

“Our conversations have been driven by finances and lack of finances,” Superintendent Sandy Husk said before the board voted. “We will need to downsize the organization.”

The meeting room at the Support Services Center was so crowded that Husk, noting fire marshal regulations, asked that people who had come only for specific agenda items wait in the hall for their turns to speak or listen.

Several people spoke from the audience against closing the schools and against personnel cuts that have been proposed to keep the district solvent. Adam Kuenzi, speaking for the Bethel and Fruitland areas, said it would be ironic for the district to close some schools while opening new ones.

“We’re being penny wise and pound foolish,” he said, adding that the board should hold off building the new schools for a year while keeping Bethel, Fruitland and Lake Labish open.

Husk said later that larger schools could be operated more cost-effectively than smaller ones. She noted that the administration had proposed many difficult cuts, including eliminating 425 jobs and buying no new textbooks.

Director Krina Lemons said that “with a heavy heart” she was moving to approve repurposing. Director Steve Chambers made what he called “a very reluctant second” and then asked Husk what programs were planned for the buildings of the three schools to be closed.

She replied that early childhood programs were planned for the Bethel and Fruitland buildings and alternative high school programs for the Lake Labish building.

Director Ron Jones, whose zone includes a small part of the Keizer area, said he was opposed to the idea of closing schools.

Director Chris Brantley, after saying, “It sickens me that we simply can’t afford it,” asked Husk what alternatives there were.

Husk said there were no alternatives, the staff having given her the best answer to the financial problems.

The board voted 5-1 for repurposing. Director Chuck Lee, whose zone consists of most of the Keizer area, had a leave of absence because of his wife’s health.

Also approved was a resolution for issuance and sale of general obligation bonds in the amount of $31,624,813.10. This amount is the remainder of indebtedness approved in a 2008 election to finance capital construction and capital improvements.

Michael Wolfe, assistant superintendent for finance, presented the first reading of a transfer request for $6,634,000 into the contingency fund. This would consist of $5 million from the debt service Public Employees Retirement System fund and an estimated $1,634,000 from the capital maintenance fund, to help offset a shortfall expected to be between $55 million and $58 million.